Fred Jackson: The Ageless Wonder

Fred Jackson, at 32 years old, is still one of the most effective backs in the NFL.

You wanted him to go away. You thought he’d go away. But he we are, in Week 16, and Fred Jackson is still running, almost like the Energizer Bunny wearing a blue and red Buffalo Bills uniform.

Fred Jackson was supposed to see a production dip this year, backing up the explosive, up-and-coming C.J. Spiller. It wasn’t thought to be a full-blown 1-2 punch in Buffalo – fantasy pundits figured, after extensive research, that C.J. Spiller would statistically blow Fred Jackson out of the water in 2013.

But after season-long health issues and a regression in overall effectiveness for Spiller, Fred Jackson has proved his worth. And he, at the age of 32, is doing it in historical fashion.

Jackson’s Advanced Metrics

Before we even dig into the numbers for running backs of his age, let’s first take a look at how Fred Jackson is doing amongst the top backs in the league this season.

PlayerRushesRush NEPRush NEP/RushCareer NFL TouchesAge
DeMarco Murray17830.350.1760825
LeSean McCoy26923.270.091,36925
Rashad Jennings15011.070.0746528
Knowshon Moreno22515.040.0797926
Fred Jackson17410.380.061,35732
Adrian Peterson2698.200.032,22728
Jamaal Charles2466.840.031,24726
Matt Forte2564.770.021,85328
Giovani Bernard1452.680.0219422
Pierre Thomas1362.300.021,03829

The table above consists of the top-10 100-plus carry running backs in effectiveness this season. I’ve included the number of rushes the particular player has seen, what that player has contributed towards his team’s output this season in terms of Net Expected Points (NEP), and how many points the back is adding with each rush. Then, in the final two columns, I looked at their total touches (rushes plus receptions) to date, along with the player’s age.

Let’s note a few things here. First, NEP numbers are lower for running backs compared to passers and receivers because running the ball is far less effective than throwing it. That doesn’t mean that rushing should be eliminated from the game of football, but it does tell us that throwing the football will yield more offensive success than running it. And that’s pretty evident when you watch the majority of NFL teams in today’s game.

Second, Fred Jackson has been the fifth-most effective volume back (though volume could have a much different definition to you) in the NFL this season. Think about that for a second. Last season, Jackson’s teammate, C.J. Spiller, ranked ahead of the 2,000-yard Adrian Peterson in Rushing NEP per Rush, capturing a 0.52 per rush average. This season, Jackson’s been the far superior back of the two, and he’s doing it at 32 years of age!

I do want to point out the career NFL touches column, where I’ve listed the number of rush attempts plus the number of receptions each player has accumulated thus far in their careers. Of the 10 runners listed, Jackson ranks fourth in touches, behind Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, and (barely) LeSean McCoy.

Some may find this important because, despite his age, Jackson hasn’t been hit like the standard running back. However, a 32-year-old running back body compared to one in the mid-20s, regardless of volume, is going to bring an inherent disadvantage.

And keep in mind that F-Jax didn’t start amassing NFL carries until he was 26. Prior to the NFL, he spent three years playing indoor football and in the NFL Europe, so his carry numbers are not necessarily as high as they should or would be had his talent (actually, his body size) been there when he first tried to make it to the NFL from Coe College (that's a real place).

The point here, aside from my rambling, is very simple: Despite being the running back grandpa, Fred Jackson has been nearly as effective as any running back in the league in 2013. That’s how good his season has been.

Jackson’s Age and History

So we know one thing: Fred Jackson has been really efficient this season, regardless of age. But what happens when we look at what he’s done this year and compare it to other running backs around his age in history?

To find the results, I used Fred Jackson’s current numbers and extrapolated his averages through the final two games of the season to come up with a reasonable finishing stat line for his 2013 campaign. In the end, he “should” finish with 829 rushing yards (currently at 725) and 374 receiving yards (currently at 327). Of course he could go over or under those totals, but that’s where he’d be expected to finish out given his averages.

To make this nice and clean, I decided to take a look at all running backs who had a season while they were 31 years or older with at least 800 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards. Jackson’s only 75 rushing yards away from hitting the 800-yard mark on the ground, while he’s already topped the 300 yards receiving. The results were borderline shocking.

PlayerYearAgeTeamRush YardsRec. Yards
Tiki Barber200631NYG1,662465
Walter Payton198531CHI1,551483
Walter Payton198632CHI1,333382
Tony Dorsett198531DAL1,307449
Ricky Watters200031SEA1,242613
James Brooks198931CIN1,239306
James Stewart200231DET1,021333
Floyd Little197331DEN979423
Garrison Hearst200231SFO972317
LaDainian Tomlinson201031NYJ914368

Over the course of NFL history, only 10 running backs who were 31 years of age or older have rushed the ball for 800 or more yards while accumulating at least 300 receiving yards. 10. That’s it.

And while we've seen 38 seasons where a running back under the same age restrictions has simply rushed for 800 yards, we don't usually see the receiving combination among those runners.

Moreover, in recent history – since 2000 – this has happened five times. Take a look at the Rushing NEP scores of those five running backs, comparing them to Fred Jackson:

PlayerYearAgeTeamRush NEPRush NEP/Rush
Tiki Barber200631NYG24.540.07
Ricky Watters200031SEA-0.120.00
James Stewart200231DET-6.04-0.03
Garrison Hearst200231SFO11.120.05
LaDainian Tomlinson201031NYJ2.090.01
Fred Jackson201332BUF10.380.06

Of these five rushers, Fred Jackson ranks second in per rush efficiency, behind only 2006's Tiki Barber. It doesn't mean he was that close to Barber in terms of value for his team, as Tiki did contribute nearly 25 Expected Points for the Giants on the ground. Barber’s final season of his career saw significant volume with a high efficiency score, something the rest of the running backs weren’t really able to do.

But aside from Barber’s fantastic season, you could argue that Fred Jackson, in 2013, is having the best multi-dimensional (rushing and receiving) season from a running back 31 years of age or older since the year 2000.

I’ll say it again: That’s how good his season has been. Fred Jackson is an ageless wonder.