Posted: March 17, 2008
They say 40 is the new 30. In the NFL, however, 30 is the new 60 for many guys.
For a variety of reasons, older players simply aren't as attractive in today's NFL. At some positions (quarterback, kicker, and punter), it's not the kiss of death to be on the wrong side of 30. For other positions, it's hard for teams to justify clinging to an aging veteran when there's a flood of players from 120-plus college programs hitting the market every year.
Running back is a prime target for an early exit. In many cases, the player's body betrays him before his birth certificate does. For some, though, it's simply an issue of being too old in an era that features too many youngsters.
Take Mike Anderson, for example. The NFL's offensive rookie of the year in 2000 is 34. Cut by the Ravens earlier this year, he can't find a job.
Anderson's agent, Peter Schaffer, thinks that many teams want to sign younger players to cheaper, longer-term deals. Schaffer thinks such an approach overlooks the league's "win now" mandate.
"The key to winning isn't to save cap room for your successor," Schaffer says. "If a guy can help you this year and next year, that's where the focus should be."
Earlier this decade, the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to a system that encourages teams to find work for older players. For anyone with four or more years of service, a team can sign him to a one-year deal for the veteran minimum, at an actual cost and a salary-cap charge of only $445,000. This applies even to 10-year veterans, who nevertheless make a full $830,000 for the season. (The difference in pay is covered by a league-wide fund.)
It's a useful tool for teams that are willing to sign players to one-year deals. But for teams that want to build something for a future that, frankly, the current members of the front office might not be there to experience, this device for keeping down the price of older players simply doesn't make sense.
Besides, some teams simply don't want older players around. As a source familiar with league matters said, some team employees believe they can't sell 30-year-old running backs to their colleagues.
Another problem for older players could arise from the amount of annual turnover on a team. With each season being a stand-alone proposition, the coaching staff must get all of the players on the same page as soon as possible. Having a veteran presence who was making a name for himself while most of the younger players were in middle school could possibly undermine that effort, if the veteran says things like, "That's not how we did it in New England."
There are exceptions, of course. When a coach has experience with a veteran player, the chances of the guy getting a job are enhanced. Receiver Isaac Bruce, who is clearly slowing down at age 35, landed quickly with the *****, where former Rams head coach Mike Martz is the new offensive coordinator. Ditto for defensive tackle Chuck Darby and cornerback Brian Kelly, who at 32 found work with the Lions because of their connection with coach Rod Marinelli, who worked with both of them in Tampa.
Of course, some players will land with new teams despite being old guys by NFL standards largely because of their ability. That's why Alan Faneca and Randy Moss got paid handsomely, despite being 31. And that's why Warrick Dunn regained a spot on the roster in Tampa at age 33.
But for every guy older than 30 who cashes in, there are plenty of geezers such as Anderson, Clark Haggans (31), Ty Law (34), Mike Rucker (32), Casey Wiegmann (34), Barry Sims (33), Darwin Walker (30) and, soon enough, Shaun Alexander (30). It's another reason why NFL players need to put as much of their football money away as possible.
After all, those eight years from 22 to 30 go by pretty quickly. For the players who are fortunate enough to spend that many seasons in the NFL, it simply isn't wise to count on eight more.
Mike Florio writes and edits ProFootballTalk.com and is a regular contributor to Sporting News.