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Perceptions of aging running backs changing

6/12/2007 - NFL

Houston Texans running back Ahman Green doesn't deny his pride. He glances around the NFL these days and he sees the obvious signs of respect, both deep and encouraging.

Aging runners -- some nearing 30, others just past that key year in their career -- are being shown the kind of love that once seemed unlikely for such older ball carriers. Not only are they getting paid decent money, but they're also proving that the skepticism usually reserved for aging running backs really is declining.

To clearly understand the point I'm making today, you have to know the common perception of running backs in this NFL. The closer they get to 30, the more teams start worrying about their bodies breaking down. Green, for example, has been hearing whispers about his impending decline since he was 27, and that was when he was playing at a Pro Bowl level in Green Bay. Basically, the chances of a veteran runner breaking a team's heart and its salary-cap projections used to be just too much for most executives to bear.

But a funny thing has happened this offseason. The 30-year-old Green currently is going through minicamp with the Texans and he's still smiling about the four-year, $23 million deal he received that included roughly $6 million in guaranteed money. Denver gave Travis Henry a five-year deal while the New York Jets rewarded Thomas Jones with a four-year contract after acquiring him in a trade with Chicago. Both players will turn 29 this season and each received $12 million in guaranteed cash.

There's also Jacksonville's Fred Taylor. Despite an assortment of injuries throughout his 10-year career, this 31-year-old back pocketed an $8 million signing bonus with his four-year extension from the Jags.

Of course, it's impossible to think all these players will satisfy their teams' expectations over the next three or four years. It's also true that some older backs -- especially a bruiser like Corey Dillon, who turns 33 in October -- have a harder time finding work. But as Green says, "Teams definitely are taking a longer look at older running backs. It's obvious that a quarterback can play until he's 40, but more of us are showing that we can play into our 30s. We're taking good care of our bodies and we're still producing. I know it's an old cliché, but age really is nothing but a number."

Green is convinced that recent history has helped change some views on older backs around the league. Though the New York Jets' Curtis Martin is on the brink of retirement at 34, he led the NFL in rushing three years ago when he was 31. Now that Tiki Barber actually has retired from the New York Giants, it's hard to not still be awed by his productivity over the last three seasons. He registered 1,680 yards per season over that span while handling 1,006 total carries. Last season, at 31, he rambled for 1,662 yards before moving into a career in broadcasting.

Most people say that Barber's production had a lot to do with the fact that he had a limited role earlier in his career, but that's not completely fair to him. Like Atlanta's Warrick Dunn -- a 32-year-old who has become a reliable every-down back late in his career -- Barber improved as he aged. Even though he cited the constant pounding as a reason why he eventually left the game, he still kept his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame in good enough shape that health issues weren't a concern as his workload increased.

It's that type of evidence that helps make a stronger case for today's older runners. It also doesn't hurt that more teams have learned how to use them better. So many head coaches and offensive coordinators are now using two or three backs in their systems that the age of a starter isn't nearly as important as it used to be.

Says Green: "Regardless of my age, if I have a good back behind me, I'm going to have a big smile on my face. Right now it's Ron Dayne and me [in Houston] and I was happy when I heard they had re-signed him. When you have two running backs, you have a chance to be successful because they'll make each other better and they'll keep each other fresh. We're not robots out there. It helps to have some help."

Green adds that he hasn't been as excited about an upcoming season in a long time. He heard all the whispers about his decline after sustaining a quadriceps injury in 2005, but he rebounded to gain 1,059 yards on 266 carries last season. He also had to go through contract talks with the Packers that left him looking for a better opportunity elsewhere.

"They told me they thought I only had two good years left in me," Green says. "I told them I didn't agree with that. I still feel like I have a lot more left."

A few years ago, I would've sided with the Packers on that one. Most often, the odds are against most players winning a fight against age. But today's NFL is starting to look a little different than it did in the past. And with the types of commitments that some teams have made to older running backs, I'd bet that Green and his peers have a chance to create even more opportunities for the aging runners who come after them.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.