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Friday, November 9, 2007
Seattle running back unlikely to bounce back

By Aaron Schatz

After Shaun Alexander won the 2005 MVP award, Seattle signed him to a new eight-year, $62 million contract. Like most NFL contracts, those numbers are inflated by contract years that will never be realized, but so far the Seahawks have paid Alexander more than $18 million in salary and bonuses. Suffice it to say, they are not getting value for their money.

Alexander is averaging 3.3 yards per carry this year, the third-worst figure among running backs with at least 100 carries. He's been even worse over the past month, with 2.4 yards per carry in the past four games. Seahawks fans are booing their one-time hero, while head coach Mike Holmgren is stuck defending Alexander to local writers and deflecting blame onto the offensive line.

The line is certainly not as good as it was during the Seahawks' run to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, but it is unfair to blame too much of Alexander's decline on blocking issues. Backup Maurice Morris and fullback Leonard Weaver have combined for 4.8 yards per carry behind the exact same line. Last week, Alexander gained just 32 yards on 14 carries against Cleveland. Morris had 55 yards on only nine carries.

This wasn't supposed to be Alexander's fate. Sure, he had dropped from 5.1 yards per carry in his MVP year to 3.6 yards per carry and just seven touchdowns in 2006. Conventional wisdom, however, blamed Alexander's poor 2006 season on the foot injury that bothered him all year. Most fans expected him to return to his MVP form, or at least something close to it. Alexander was taken sixth overall in the average fantasy draft before the season began.

Shaun Alexander
Shaun Alexander has not been his usual self so far this season.
Most observers ignored the fact that Alexander turned 30 the week before the season began, and 30-year-old running backs simply don't come back from the kind of decline we saw from Alexander in 2006. The foot injury was not an excuse for the past; it was an indicator for the future.

From 1978 through 2005, only eight running backs age 28 or older saw their rushing average decline by more than a yard per carry, with a minimum 150 carries each season. Barry Sanders, Curtis Martin and Randy McMillan never played again. James Brooks, Marion Butts and Corey Dillon each retired after one more year. Mike Anderson and Jerome Bettis went through a period of ineffectiveness, although each eventually rebounded for at least one good season.

Pass reception stats were another sign the old Alexander wasn't coming back. A drop in pass receptions is often a good indicator that a running back has only one or two good years left, even if the running back is still productive carrying the ball. Alexander had 59 receptions in 2002 and 42 in 2003, before dropping to 23, 15 and 12 over the past three seasons.

Alexander is one of 13 running backs, age 27 or older, who had a season with at least 140 carries, but fewer than 25 receptions two years after a season with at least 150 carries and more than 40 receptions. In fact, Alexander is the only player since 1978 to have two such seasons, 2004 and 2005.

Who are the other 12 players on this list? Dillon, Martin and Sanders all appear again. So do 49ers great Roger Craig, who ended his career as a part-time player in Oakland and Minnesota, and the enigmatic Ricky Williams, who ended his career (probably) in the CFL.

Five of the other seven players retired after one more season -- Pete Johnson, Kevin Mack, Duce Staley, Anthony Toney and Lorenzo White. A sixth, Curt Warner, managed to stick around for a season and a half. In their remaining time in the NFL, these six backs averaged just 95 carries and 295 yards, barely three yards per carry.

The final player on the list is Alexander's contemporary, Fred Taylor of Jacksonville. Taylor had only 36 receptions total over the past two seasons, after catching at least 36 passes four times between 2000 and 2004. Taylor is still a productive runner, unlike Alexander, but his rushing average has dropped from 5.0 yards per carry to 4.4 yards per carry -- and he has yet to score a touchdown this season.

Alexander was one of the league's top backs from 2003 through 2005, but no amount of public exhortations asking Alexander to "run hard" can bring back his open-field speed or burst through the hole. If the Seahawks want to make any noise come playoff time, it's time to pull Alexander from the starting lineup.

Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2007 and 2008.