No League for Old Backs?: Will Fred Jackson Find a New Team?

Fred Jackson was the oldest running back on an NFL roster this offseason. Will he be able to retain that title through 2015?

"Caught in that sensual music all neglect/Monuments of unageing intellect"

The poetry above is the last lines of the first stanza of William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” a musing on the tendency of the rapture of newness and youth to live in the moment and ignore the lessons of wisdom and history. It describes how the rush and rage of keeping with the times prevents one from embracing something more lasting and eternal -- a legacy, or maybe even more. This poem is also where the title of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men” -- and the Coen brothers’ film of the same name -- originated.

Just like Yeats' poem, the NFL of today is a league oriented toward youth.

Today, the Buffalo Bills released the oldest running back on an NFL roster, Fred Jackson. Jackson was a team captain through his nine years with the franchise and is the franchise’s third-leading rusher in history. Still, with a new regime under head coach Rex Ryan in place and the Bills looking to capitalize on the competitive chaos in the AFC East, Jackson finds himself one of those “unageing” monuments: neglected.

At age 34, is this old man deserving of another chance on an NFL roster, or will we find him sailing off to Byzantium?

Those Dying Generations

As I mentioned before, Jackson was the oldest running back in the league entering training camp this offseason at a robust age 34. Interestingly, he spent his entire nine-year NFL career with the Buffalo Bills: a dying practice and show of loyalty. More interesting, however, is that that math means he began his career in the NFL at the age of 26, ancient for a “rookie” running back in the league. His story is one of being overlooked time and time again but succeeding in the most unlikely manner.

In fact, since 2000, Fred Jackson is one of just two running backs both to play more than one season in the league and have more than 200 career rushing yards after a rookie season at age-26 or older. That’s incredibly rare in today’s climate of fascination with young talent coming out of college.

Even 15 years ago, there were numerous avenues for talent to come into the league, but now indoor football teams (which Jackson played on) have largely died out, and NFL Europa is defunct (Jackson was also a member of the Rhein Fire).

In 2007, when Jackson was given a shot by a fellow Coe College alumnus, Buffalo Bills then-general manager Marv Levy, it was a much different climate. Is the NFL of today now no country for old men?

The Artifice of Eternity

Jackson did play professional football prior to 2007, but he has significantly more tread on his tires than we’d expect a 34-year old running back to have. What does Jackson’s career look like, and can we expect any more out of him at this point?

The table below shows Jackson’s career in the NFL in terms of his true value to his team, in the form of Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

I also included his annual ranks among high-volume backs in the metrics for reference, as well as the Rushing Success Rate – the percentage of rushes in which he added positive NEP (league average in 2014 was about 42%). What do we see?

Year Rush NEP Per-Play Rush Success Rec NEP Per-Target
2007 4.20 (N/A) 0.07 (N/A) 41.38% (N/A) 6.35 (N/A) 0.21 (N/A)
2008 -3.02 (24th) -0.02 (t-25th) 46.51% (5th) 16.19 (14th) 0.36 (14th)
2009 -10.61 (30th) -0.04 (t-28th) 42.62% (24th) 23.78 (6th) 0.40 (10th)
2010 -8.44 (26th) -0.04 (t-22nd) 42.34% (15th) 9.84 (25th) 0.18 (37th)
2011 3.77 (13th) 0.02 (t-12th) 45.29% (11th) 23.77 (9th) 0.48 (t-8th)
2012 -20.24 (38th) -0.18 (40th) 41.74% (22nd) 12.47 (14th) 0.30 (19th)
2013 13.90 (6th) 0.07 (t-4th) 46.38% (9th) 20.28 (12th) 0.31 (20th)
2014 -11.66 (30th) -0.08 (t-31st) 44.37% (12th) 23.55 (6th) 0.26 (t-21st)

Jackson has only once been stellar by Rushing NEP -- his 2013 season, when on just 207 attempts, he assembled 890 yards and nine rushing touchdowns -- but he’s been solidly steady and highly efficient every other season in his career. In only one season did his Rushing NEP and per-play Rushing NEP both fall outside of the top-32 among high-volume running backs, but every other year he’s been an NFL starter-worthy player in this aspect.

For a back of his size and playing style, he also has an underrated value in the receiving game. In terms of total receiving value via Reception NEP, he’s ranked inside the top-15 all but one year, but what is troubling is that his receiving efficiency (per-target Reception NEP) has been slipping every year since 2011.

For a player who is no longer a candidate for bell cow rushing workloads, you have to provide value in the receiving game as well. It seems that Jackson’s ability to do so has been starting to diminish, even if his rushing ability remains above average into his later years.

Monuments of Their Own Magnificence

What do we do with Jackson then? It seems that he still has the chops to play in the league at least through this season, even at age 34 -- 1,601 touches in his nine years is actually fewer than new Bills’ lead back Lesean McCoy has in just six.

He was likely just budged off of the Bills’ stacked running back depth chart, who now have bell cow McCoy, receiving and short-yardage back Anthony Dixon, and the dynamic-but-raw Bryce Brown and Karlos Williams.

The question is: who needs a running back and would be willing to take a risk on an aging veteran?

The most obvious answer is the Dallas Cowboys. After fielding one of the most prolific rushing attacks in recent history last season, the Cowboys allowed their star, DeMarco Murray, to leave in free agency. Murray was our eighth-best rusher last season by raw Rushing NEP, and he accounted for 23.54 Total NEP. The Cowboys replaced him with an injured reserve special of Darren McFadden, rookie undrafted free agent Gus Johnson, scatback Lance Dunbar, and underwhelming runner-only Joseph Randle.

Most notably, McFadden ranked 42nd out of 43 running backs with at least 100 rushes in 2014, and cost the Oakland Raiders a Total NEP of -21.68. In addition, Jackson is from Arlington and the offensive line value for the Cowboys is greater than any other team available.

The Houston Texans are also scrambling to fill the shoes of a lost star, as Arian Foster went down with a groin injury and is likely out for at least six weeks into the season. Foster accounted for just slightly less value on the ground than Murray but was a monster in the air, with a Total NEP score of 37.40 in 2014. The Texans would be able to approximate some of that value with Jackson in the fold.

Interestingly, the bottom three teams of our schedule-adjusted team Rushing NEP from 2014 all still have somewhat unsettled running back situations. The Cleveland Browns are trying to figure out how to replace the dynamic value of rookie Duke Johnson, who suffered a concussion in this week’s preseason game. The Oakland Raiders are finally offering a true chance to potential breakout-in-the making Latavius Murray but have little depth behind him. Finally, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have Doug Martin, Charles Sims, and not much else. Any of these could be landing spots for Jackson as well.

At the end of the day, Jackson has an incredible legacy and is a testament unto himself about proving the impossible quite possible.

I just hope he gets one more year to add to that legacy and build his monument a little higher so that it's  just a little harder to neglect.