Commentary

Aging offense not a bad thing

Patriots still competitive despite one of oldest offenses in the NFL

Updated: September 10, 2010, 7:54 AM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

Like a past-her-prime actress fresh out of plastic surgery, the 2010 New England Patriots are somehow old but getting younger.

Sure, all teams combine veterans with youth, but the construction of the Patriots accentuates the divide.

The current Patriots 53-man roster has an average age of 26.8, making it the 13th youngest in the NFL, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In other words, New England is in the middle of the pack from an age perspective. On average, the Patriots are more than a year older than the Carolina Panthers (25.6), the youngest team in the NFL.

However, take a closer look and you'll see that the Patriots' average age is heavily impacted by an aging offense.

So while the average age of the team is approaching 27 years old, 35 of the 53 players are 26 or younger. Of the 18 that are older, 10 are offensive starters.

In fact, 10 of the 11 oldest players on the team fall on the offensive side of the ball. Gerard Warren (32) is the lone exception, and Tully Banta-Cain (30) is the only other 30-something on the defense.

The current 53-man roster has 22 players in their first or second season. However, the youth movement is most apparent on the defensive side of the ball.

Consider the secondary, where no one is older than 26 and three of the four likely starters are 24 or younger. No cornerback has more than two prior years of experience. The main reason for that is the loss of Leigh Bodden to a season-ending rotator cuff tear. Entering his eighth season, Bodden actually has one more year of pro experience than the current five cornerbacks on the roster combined.

Overall, five expected defensive starters are 24 or younger. That number could jump to six if rookie Jermaine Cunningham wins the outside linebacker job.

[+] EnlargeFred Taylor
AP Photo/John AmisAt age 34, running back Fred Taylor is the oldest player on the Patriots roster.

Contrast that with the offense, where the youngest starter could ultimately be 26-year-old Sebastian Vollmer. How big is the difference? The Patriots actually have a receiver on the practice squad -- 27-year-old Darnell Jenkins -- who is older than any defensive back on the team.

The youth movement is not entirely restricted to defense. Promising tight ends Aaron Hernandez (20) and Rob Gronkowski (21) are the two youngest players on the team. The Patriots are also counting on a group of young receivers to emerge behind Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Those spots aside, the offensive side of the ball is full of graybeards.

The defense is the clear question mark entering the season because of its youth and inexperience. But what factor could advancing age play on the offense?

Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Fred Taylor all sit atop the Patriots' depth chart at their respective positions. But they have something else in common. All three are also at least 33 years old -- with Taylor (34) being the oldest player on the team. Throw in Alge Crumpler (32), and you can see why someone who pays attention only to fantasy football might think the Patriots are playing in a senior league.

So can the Patriots succeed while aging at the three most visible positions on the field? It would certainly be historic.

Consider this fact from the Elias Sports Bureau: No team in NFL history has ever had a leading passer, rusher and receiver who were all age 33 or older at the end of the season.

Certainly, Welker could have a bigger year than Moss. Or perhaps Laurence Maroney finally puts it all together in the backfield. But as things stand now, the Patriots are attempting something unprecedented.

That's not to say Tom Brady is on the decline at 33. Common perception of Brady's 2009 campaign suggests a down year -- and compared with 2007, what wouldn't be?

Brady's 75.9 fourth-quarter passer rating in 2009 was certainly a cause for concern, particularly since it fell to 52.4 when the game was within seven points. Compare that with Peyton Manning's 132.5 rating in the fourth quarter when a game was within seven.

But was part of Brady's struggles a reflection of strong opponents? When adjusting for the defenses that he faced, FootballOutsiders.com points to Brady as the top quarterback in the NFL in 2009.

Indeed, 33 doesn't qualify as old at quarterback. In fact, almost 30 percent (13 of 44) of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were older than 32 -- although just five of the past 26.

There have been 21 4,000-yard passing seasons by quarterbacks 33 or older. One-thousand-yard receiving seasons? There have been 50 by 33-plus receivers, which points to continued good production out of a receiver of Moss' caliber.

But age doesn't impact each position equally, and for running backs, it's a different story. The wear and tear suffered at the position takes a toll as the years advance. Only five 1,000-yard rushing seasons can be attributed to running backs 33 or older -- and none since John Riggins in 1984.

Here's the good news: The Patriots likely aren't counting on Taylor to carry the load by himself. They've retained the committee of running backs who combined to rank 12th in the NFL in rushing yards in 2009.

But last season, Taylor was already the second-oldest running back in the game. Kevin Faulk was right behind him, and Sammy Morris was the fifth oldest. Aaron Stecker, the oldest in 2009, is now retired, while Ahman Green, the fourth oldest, is out of the NFL.

That means the Patriots now have the three oldest running backs in the NFL.

Combined, they are 101 years old.

Those three elder statesmen currently top the depth chart. It seems probable that one will end the season as the yardage leader, although Maroney, who led the team in rushing in 2009, could re-emerge.

To find a Super Bowl winner with a leading regular-season rusher older than 32, you have to go back to the 1990 Giants. Ottis Anderson -- the Super Bowl MVP -- was 33 years old in his final productive season.

In fact, among the past 18 Super Bowl winners, only three have had a leading regular-season rusher who was 29 or older.

There's a catch though: All three of those champions called Foxborough home.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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