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Davis blew out his right knee in season 5. "Never the same after that," he says. "Never had the same explosiveness or the same quickness. I couldn't make a cut without thinking about it. Face it—running backs, we don't last that long. It's a lot of pounding. Now? I've got bone-on-bone in my knee. My neck hurts. My back hurts. Like I said, horrible. But I wouldn't change anything that happened. Not a thing. That's just the way it is for a running back."
According to the NFL Players Association, a running back's career lasts 2.6 years on average, the shortest of any position. It's not hard to understand why. "We get hit on every play," says the Redskins' Larry Johnson. "On every one of the those hits, we're the hittee, not the hitter. We run the ball, guys are taking shots at our legs, our hips. Then when we're not running the ball, we're pass-blocking, which means some strong safety or outside linebacker is getting a 30-yard run at us while we're stationary."
There's no position quite like it, and no real remedy. Chris Johnson carried the ball 358 times last year and caught 50 passes, a staggering 408 touches. That number is not likely to drop this year. "The object here is to win games," says Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "Everybody is so evenly matched in this league, we're all desperate. Now I think CJ is pretty unique. He gets his feet up off the turf on contact, just gets ping-ponged around and then bounces right back up. He doesn't take the really big hit [with his feet planted]. We're going to put the ball in his hands as often as we can. There may be a time at some point in his career where we say, let's back him down. But right now it's full speed ahead. Let's have some fun. The defense gets worn down too."
This approach comes as no surprise to Brian Westbrook, 30, who spent eight years with the Eagles and racked up 1,734 touches. He played only eight games in 2009 with Philly and suffered two concussions. In mid-August he was still planning to sign with a team for 2010 but remained a free agent. "Eventually you learn the truth about the business of the NFL," says Westbrook. "The coaches, the front office—their job is to win football games. And to do that they're willing to use you until you have nothing left. They will disregard your health and disregard your injuries to win games."
It is this harsh calculus that truncates many running backs' careers. "They go downhill faster than most," says Jets coach Rex Ryan. "It's not a position where you can avoid contact."
Although some coaches try. Cam Cameron was offensive coordinator of the Chargers from 2002 to '06, during which time LaDainian Tomlinson averaged more than 400 combined carries and receptions a year. "With LaDainian, I would try to game-plan four or five no-contact touches every week," says Cameron. "Maybe a swing pass where he could get out-of-bounds for three or four yards and not get hit. Maybe a sweep where he could flatten out and not take a shot. Five times every game, that's 80 touches a season with no hit."
That would be about the only way to preserve a player at the position. "Running backs want the ball," says Bills coach Chan Gailey, who coached Emmitt Smith for two seasons in Dallas in the late '90s. "I've still never once had a back tell me he wanted fewer carries."
Thomas Jones, Chiefs, 11th season
• Jones has rushed for the second-most yards in the NFL over the last five years, yet twice teams have cut him loose to go with a younger back—first the Bears in 2007 with Cedric Benson and now the Jets with Shonn Greene, after Jones rushed for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns last fall. By not signing him, New York avoided paying a $3 million bonus. The Chiefs gave him a two-year, $5.8 million contract.