foster-camp2

Admit it, you’re afraid. You’re afraid of Arian Foster breaking after his 391 regular season touches last year (351 of which were carries, which led the league), and 460 including the post-season.

It’s a rational fear, really, especially given the history of a running back ripping after a season when he runs through the 400-touch barrier, and especially given Foster’s average of 414 touches per season over the last three years (including playoffs). But even with that minefield, predicting such an abrupt decline from a still relatively young running back (Foster will turn 27 next month) is at best difficult, and at worst foolish.

Productivity may dip and dwindle after a season with such significant touches, and often that’s due to a team decreasing a running back’s workload (with Ben Tate healthy, the Texans have already said they’ll ease up on Foster). But to brace for certain death and to therefore be leery of Foster during fantasy drafts is to assume that a running back who started a little later than most, seeing his first full season at the age of 24, will crumble.

The 400-touch benchmark is usually used as a harbinger of doom, presumably because it’s a large, menacing number. But like all end points, it’s arbitrary. Is there a vast difference between 400 touches and, say, 390 or 380? Of course not, but there’s a perception.

In a jog through history and several significant examples, we see that sometimes an implosion became reality. Often, though, sustained productivity can be found.

Ricky Williams

  • First +350 touch season at age 24, which resulted in 1,756 total yards
  • Next season: 430 touches for 2,216 total yards, 1,853 of which came on the ground (both career yardage highs)
  • Then on 442 touches at the age of 26, he had 1,723 all-purpose yards, before the fall to 743 yards the next season, and then his┬ábrief retirement to puff the magic dragon.

Williams’ three-year average between the ages of 24 and 26 was 415 touches before he left the Dolphins to heal society’s wounds, or something. This is a point for pain, as Williams’ tale sounds far too much like the history Foster is fighting.

Priest Holmes

  • Starting in 2001 he had seasons with 389, 383, and 394 touches
  • That’s an average of 388.6 touches per season over a three-year span
  • But his first high-touch season (the 389 year) came at the age of 28, while Foster’s came at 24.

Again and again, age is the driver behind workload concerns. While it’s easy to note that after 2003 (the 394-carry year) Holmes was never the same again and he fell from 2,110 total yards to 1,079, where exactly is the tipping point? The difference between his 2002 and 2003 seasons is just nine touches, and the difference in overall yardage between those years is minimal too (177 yards, down from 2,287 to 2,110).

Looking even a little further, Holmes was able to sustain a short but still significant period of punishment. Three years is a long time in the fleeting professional life of a running back, and after sparse usage at the start of his career, Holmes averaged 2,188.6 total yards between the ages of 28 and 30.

Briefly then, one high volume season didn’t lead to immediate death the following year, and instead for Holmes it was the cumulative effect of all three, as we saw with Williams above. Simple, right? Well, not so much…

LaDainian Tomlinson

  • Seven straight seasons with at least 300 carries
  • Touches over a seven-year span starting in 2001 (Tomlinson’s rookie year): 398, 451, 413, 392, 390, 404, 375
  • That’s an average of 403.4 touches per season over a time frame which starts when Tomlinson was the ripe and chipper age of 22, and ends when he needs a customized pair of Dr. Scholls at 28.

That’s also six straight seasons with at least 390 touches, and there was no single season which kept Tomlinson from being elusive and slippery during the following season. There were some peaks and valleys, but when your floor as a running back is 1,603 yards during a period when you’re touching a football on average over 400 times per season, that’s pretty alright. Then when you can come just 51 yards shy of a 2,000 yard season a year after having 400 touches for a third time, you just might be one of the best ever.

And that’s what Tomlinson is, because flags fly forever. Will Foster be worthy of that esteemed label during an afternoon in Canton one day? No idea, but I do know that in recent history (as in, this decade), there’s been a running back who’s sustained consistent thrashing, while consistently posting numbers which will earn him a replica face soon enough.

His name is Tomlinson. No relation.

Eddie George

  • George had 403 carries and 453 touches at the age of 27, right before an abrupt drop off (from 1,509 rushing yards to 939).
  • However, that came at the end of this stretch of touches which started in 1996 (George was 23): 358, 364, 385, 367
  • Overall during those five years, he averaged 385.4 touches per season.

Here again we have an outlier season with a high workload, and thus the abuse is much more pronounced, with George’s 453 touches trumping the rest.

But unlike Foster, George had a longer period of physical neglect. As mentioned, Foster wasn’t the Texans’ starter until the age of 24, and although the amount of walls he was asked to pound through last year were plentiful, he’s still looking at his third year of head ramming, and George finally broke after his fifth. Half a decade is, in many cases, half of a running back’s career.

Edgerrin James

  • James’ touches starting at age 25 in 2003: 361, 385, 404, 375
  • During that time he averaged 1,645.4 total yards per season, which includes a season with 2,031 yards (2004), and four with at least 1,200 rushing yards.
  • Remarkably, though, all of that came after his peak usage season in 2000, when James had 450 touches.

In 2001, James tore his ACL after six games. Some will say “AHA!” and point to high usage as the reason for his ripping. Others, like me, will realize that an injury is a random and violent event, and then take the wholly unnecessary step of reminding you that two running backs (Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles) had pretty fantastic seasons last year directly after ACL rips of their own.

And while we could also point to James’ youth during his peak touch season as a reason for his ability to not completely bust, it’s not that easy to skim over the length of his career despite that early throttling. Over his first two seasons James had 881 touches. Process that for a second, and then also absorb the fact that despite the Colts’ early effort to behead him, James still had a just fine 1,222 rushing yards (and 1,425 overall yards) at the age of 29 when he was supposed to be fading off in Arizona.

For James, the cumulative effect of a high workload wasn’t all that cumulative.

Eric Dickerson

  • Averaged 395.8 touches over the first four years of his career.
  • Yes, three of his four +400 touch seasons came before the age of 26. That’s a thing, but then there’s also his 2,036 totals yards on 424 touches at the age of 28, and then an average by Dickersonian standards but still solid by normal people standards 1,522 yards on 344 touches at age 29.

I’m not calling Foster an Eric Dickerson, just like I’m not calling him a LaDainian Tomlinson (yet), or a Barry Sanders (below). Instead, I’m saying that it’s entirely possible for an elite running back (aside: I despise the overuse of that word, but I think we can all agree that the names here are worthy of such a title) to absorb punishment and suffer some combusting because of it, while still being productive even if he doesn’t meet previous highs.

For Foster, imploding has manifested itself in a groin injury, and now a calf injury. For Dickerson, a spinal injury eventually led to his retirement. But that came at the age of 33, after a career in which his productivity remained high even with that historic early and repeated gut punching (only Dickerson and Emmitt Smith have four +400 touch seasons).

Barry Sanders

  • In his final season, Sanders had a career high 343 carries at the age of 30, which resulted in 1,491 rushing yards.
  • His touches over a four-year stretch prior to that starting in 1994 at the age of 26: 375, 362, 331, 368

Over his final five years then, Sanders averaged 355.8 touches. Sure, that’s much lower than the devil number of 400, but the larger takeaway here is that instead of one sudden spike, Sanders endured a consistently high workload, and he started to do that at the age of 26. More impressively, he had his best rushing season (2,053 yards), at the age of 29.

That final five-year stretch also included two seasons with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Overall, Sanders averaged 1,980.4 total yards per season between 1994 and 1998.

What did we learn?

The real lesson is to mostly shrug your shoulders at the daunting 400-touch plateau, and carry on with other life matters. It’s a beast that can’t be predicted.

History has built a mountain of numbers and broken dreams for Foster to climb, but despite his exceedingly high touches last year, youth is still on this side. As Cold Hard Football Facts noted after doing some number diving, that sudden, Larry Johnson-esque spiral is nearly guaranteed when a running back has his high touch season in his fourth of fifth year. For Foster, 2012 was his third year as a starter after he busted out late in 2009.

But there is no finite, concrete answer. As I’ve demonstrated, Cherry picking examples on either side is easy, as for every Dickerson or Sanders or Tomlinson, there’s a Larry Johnson or a Jamaal Anderson who were never the same.

Sometimes the 400-touch plague could instead be just a matter of nature. We now know that a running back begins to see a twinkling light at the end of the tunnel as he approaches the age of 30. So when Shaun Alexander’s rushing yards dropped by over 1,000 following 385 touches, was the fall solely tied to that one year of excessive abuse, or the cumulative effect of his 1,520 touches prior to that as he prepared to enter his age 29 season?

It can be either, or it can be both, and we can’t just highlight the dive after the high touch season and declare death, while ignoring the resurrection. A prime example of that is Michael Turner, who fell from 1,699 rushing yards to 871 after 382 touches in 2008, but then he recovered for two more +1,300 yard rushing seasons. Sometimes, we could just be discussing simple regression back to the mean, both in terms of workload and production.

There are many variables and many different body types in play, which makes any sort of instinctive assumption difficult to digest.