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"I've come to expect the worst," says Jones. "The Jets had one guy who was going to be 32 years old making $6 million. Then they had another guy who's 25 years old, making a whole lot less than that. Here's the thing about running back: It's an instinctive position. A young guy can come in and play right away. More than a lot of other positions. But I never asked to leave a team."
Each season from 2003 to '06, a different back led the Broncos in rushing, and each gained at least 1,000 yards. That established the economic blueprint for managing the position: A team can succeed, sometimes even win the Super Bowl, without a great running back, provided there is ample talent at quarterback and offensive line. Hence management will economize at the position, moving out highly paid, established backs in favor of cheaper up-and-comers or journeymen.
"I am of that mind-set," says Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, who came over from Bill Belichick's Patriots regime in 2009. "That special guy [Payton, Smith, Dickerson] has always been rare. Generally speaking, you need a good season out of the position. In New England, Antowain Smith was not a great back, but he had a great season [rushing for 1,157 yards in 2001, a Super Bowl--winning year]. Corey Dillon was not a great back, but he had a great season [1,635 yards in 2004, another Super Bowl year]."
It is also a guessing game. Every running back comes stamped with an unknown expiration date. "You don't know how many times they've been hit in high school, hit in college," says Pioli. "Or how well they've taken care of themselves."
Emmitt Smith was known for "getting skinny" just as hits arrived, seldom taking heavy shots to the sternum and shoulders. Jamal Lewis, who rushed for 2,066 yards with the Ravens in 2003, was known for the opposite. "He had some phenomenal seasons for us," says Eric DeCosta, Baltimore's director of player personnel. "But his style was physical. He took on hits. And the hits took a toll on him."
Shanahan, who orchestrated the revolving door of rushers at Denver in the early 2000s, says, "There are places on the field where you need a great player. I don't think running back is one of them. I look for overachievers."
Willie Parker, Redskins, 7th season
Status: hanging on
• Eighteen months ago Parker, 29, started Super Bowl XLIII for the Steelers. Three years earlier he had rushed for 93 yards on 10 carries in Super Bowl XL. Now he's buried on Washington's depth chart, fighting to keep his career alive. There have been three injuries: a broken right leg in 2007, a sprained left MCL in '08 and turf toe last fall.
"I had those injuries, and every time I came back, I was playing to protect myself, but I didn't even realize it until I watched myself on film," says Parker, whose competition includes Larry Johnson and Clinton Portis, two other aging warhorses. "I talked to [former Colts star] Edgerrin James about it. He said the same thing happened to him. It's like a subconscious thing. In Pittsburgh they were trying to move me out for Rashard Mendenhall for two years. That's the way it goes. You gotta have a tough soul to be a running back in this league."