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Ronnie Brown: How much does he have left in his tank?

One of the hot topics this offseason has focused on running back Ronnie Brown.  With Brown's contract set to expire following the 2009 season, there has been a debate among Dolphin fans about whether or not the Dolphins should give Ronnie a long-term extension.

Those who are opposed to signing Brown to a long-term extension like to use one key factor to back up their argument.  They highlight Ronnie's age, 27, and then say something that references how running backs typically see their production take a nose dive around the age of 30. 

But I have news for you - age means absolutely nothing.

That's right - nada.  Nothing at all.  Age is just a number - not the critical number.

You see, the key number you should look at is touches.  How many times has a running back touched the football?  That's what wears players down.  It's not their age, it's the wear and tear of being a workhorse and taking a pounding game in and game out for years.

Ronnie Brown entered the NFL at the age of 23 - older than many players who come out of college.  Therefore, despite just being four years into his NFL career, Brown is 27 and will be 28 before his fifth NFL season comes to a close.  So judging how much a running back might have left in the tank simply based on age is ridiculous.

The breakdown

What I did to further examine this was to break down the careers of four of the NFL's greatest running backs - Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Marshall Faulk.  Why these four?  They are towards the top of the NFL's career rushing list but played in this current era of football.

The first step in this process was to total up the number of touches (rushing attempts and receptions) each player received during the first four seasons of their careers.  LaDainian Tomlinson lead the way with 1,654 touches - or 414 per season.  Edgerrin James was next with 1,394 touches (349 per season), followed by Marshall Faulk with 1,276 (319 per season) and Shaun Alexander with 1,144 (286 per season).

Ronnie Brown, through his first four seasons, has just 918 total touches - or 230 per season.  That's a whopping 226 touches less than Alexander, who had the lowest total of the four players above.  And that's also 445 touches below the average touches of the four players above - 1,367.

So when did each of the four players above see a dip in their production?  I've defined a "dip" as a noticeable decline in the player's yards-per-carry average.  Shaun Alexander saw his career begin to dip after 1,905 career touches.  The other three players, including Edgerrin James (who suffered through a torn ACL in his third NFL season - just like Ronnie Brown did), saw many more touches before their dip.  James didn't see his production drop until after 2,334 touches.  Tomlinson received 2,823 touches before his dip.  And Faulk received 2,995 touches before his drop-off.

What's my point?

If you average all that out, the number of touches prior to the production dip is 2,514 touches.  Ronnie Brown stands at just 918 touches.  Ronnie could see an increase to 300 touches per season and still put in five productive years before we have to worry.  Granted - every player is different and no two situations are exactly alike.  But my point here is that it's completely unfair to say that Ronnie is going to begin to slow down because he'll be 28 years old in December.  Brown has nowhere near the mileage on his body that other starting backs typically have at his age.  In fact, I could even point out how Brown's college years differ - in a good way - from those of many great backs.  Ronnie was the #2 man in the 1-2 backfield at Auburn with Cadillac Williams.  While many great college backs get pounded every week, Ronnie's number of touches was relatively low.

My comparison

While putting this together, I came across one player whose career prior to the age of 27 was similar to that of Ronnie Brown's - at least in terms of the number of touches the player received.

This "mystery" player had 913 carries before his 27th birthday.  This same player then exploded, averaging 378 touches per year for the next five years - a total of 1,890 touches over those five seasons.  In that span, this player averaged 2,054 yards from scrimmage per season before retiring following the 2006 season.

The player I'm referring to is Tiki Barber.  And Barber's production never slipped despite having 2,803 career touches prior to his retirement.  Why could Brown have a career similar to Barber's career?

I'll close this article with a chart to simplify what my point here was.  Below shows the four backs I focused on - Tomlinson, James, Faulk, and Alexander - and their number of touches in their first 4 NFL seasons.  It also shows their number of touches prior to the NFL season which began with the player in question 27 years old.

Player First 4 seasons Pre age 27
LaDainian Tomlinson 1,654 2,044
Edgerrin James 1,394 2,140
Marshall Faulk 1,276 2,026
Shaun Alexander 1,144 1,144
Average 1,367 1,839
Ronnie Brown 918 918

As you can see, Ronnie is not your typical 27 year old running back.  Treating him as if he was one is unfair.

And let me go on record and say that I'm 100% in favor of extending Brown's contract before the 2009 season.  Give Ronnie 5 more years and 27 to 29 million more dollars and lock up this man.  He'll be worth every penny.