Alexander's future in Seattle remains uncertain
Shaun Alexander is having his best season in the NFL. But despite that, his future in Seattle remains up in the air.
As a red zone runner, Shaun Alexander is almost unstoppable.
In 95 regular season games, he has scored 99 touchdowns. With one game left in the season, Alexander has tied Priest Holmes for the NFL single-season touchdown record at 27 and has a chance to break it Sunday against the Packers. Roughly 40 percent of his carries in the red zone have resulted in touchdowns.
But can his red zone success turn into green? The hero of fantasy football and likely MVP of the 2005 season has only one negative stat. He's 28 years old. At any other position in just about any other sport, being 28 years old is a blessing. Baseball players supposedly hit their prime between the ages of 28 and 32. The same can be said about nearly every position in football -- other than running back.
A free agent after the season, Alexander is ready to turn his red zone success into serious green, but the Seahawks are hung up on the age. Though they want to make him one of the highest paid running backs in the NFL, it's unlikely they will give him the eight-year, $64 million contract given to LaDainian Tomlinson.
Tomlinson is considered the best running back in the NFL. He can run. He can catch. He can throw touchdown passes. He's 26 years old. The Chargers made Tomlinson the highest paid running back Aug. 16, 2004 when they redid his contract and gave him a deal paying him $8 million a year.
|“||My price is my price. It is not going to change whether we do great or whether we are doing bad. Hopefully the Seahawks want to take it and run into the Super Bowl a bunch of times with it. ”|
|— Shaun Alexander, Seahawks RB|
Since Tomlinson signed that deal, Alexander has outgained Tomlinson 3,503 yards to 2,705 yards and scored 48 touchdowns to Tomlinson's 37. During those two years, the Seahawks won 22 games to the Chargers' 21. Alexander's game is geared toward scoring and it's pretty simple what financial number he's shooting for.
If eight-years, $64 million is the goal line, Alexander is looking to make his score.
"My price is my price," Alexander told reporters this week. "It is not going to change whether we do great or whether we are doing bad. Hopefully the Seahawks want to take it and run into the Super Bowl a bunch of times with it."
Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell, a candidate himself for postseason honors, offered a fair compromise to a difficult situation after taking the job in late February. Like most general managers, he's concerned about the age. Running backs wear down after the age of 28. But he knew the Seahawks needed Alexander, who had been given the one-year franchise tag.
To avert a holdout, Ruskell offered to waive the team's rights to franchise Alexander in 2006. No problem, Alexander thought. Alexander would make $6.323 million this year and then be free to negotiate with anyone. To him, that was a red zone carry. He ran with it, and he's had a career year -- 1,807 yards, a 5.2 yard average and 27 touchdowns.
Throughout the process, Alexander has talked only about re-signing with the Seahawks, but so far, talks have gone nowhere and it all comes back to age. Alexander will be 29 in August.
"If you look at five of the top 15 running backs over the past two years, Tiki Barber, Corey Dillon, Curtis Martin and others, they are backs who are 29 or in their 30s," said Alexander's agent, Jim Steiner. "I remember when 30 used to be the drop-dead age that all players were supposed to decline. Now you have players doing great after the age of 35. Players take better care of themselves. Shaun takes care of himself. He's very fit. He pays a lot of attention to his body. Shaun is not a drinker. He takes care of himself, and he gets better every year."
Why is 28 or 29 such a bad age for a running back to negotiate a contract? History says a running back peaks at the age of 28 and goes downhill after that. A study of the top 30 running backs in NFL history shows their best seasons happened at the age of 28.4. Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson has said for years a great back can last for six years and 1,600 carries before the hits take a toll. Dickerson rushed for 1,311 yards at the age of 28 in 1989, his seventh 1,000-yard season in eight years in the NFL. He never broke 1,000 yards again in the next four years.
The NFL record book is riddled with similar stories. Emmitt Smith, Jerome Bettis, Marshall Faulk, Thurman Thomas, O.J. Simpson, Ottis Anderson, Terry Allen, Earl Campbell, Earnest Byner, Roger Craig, Freeman McNeil, Priest Holmes, Chris Warren and George Rogers had their best years between the ages of 27 and 29.
The NFL can be a cruel league when it comes to running backs. Backs are workhorses. Teams want to reward players for past accomplishments, but if a running back has been really good, chances are he's carried the ball a lot and taken a pounding. Teams have a hard time justifying big deals for running backs once they reach their peak because of the possibility that their skills are starting to decline.
The Jets gave Curtis Martin an eight-year $46 million contract when he was 29 years old and was coming off what was then his best season -- 1,513 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2001. They held their breath for a couple of years when Martin dropped to 1,094 and 1,308 yards the next two years. The organization took a big sigh of relief -- as did every other 30-plus-year-old back -- when he had a career year of 1,697 yards and 14 touchdowns at the age 31.
But then came his injury plagued season this year at the age of 32.
The Chiefs debated until September of 2003 whether it was right to give Holmes a seven-year, $48 million deal when he was going to turn 30 the next month. Holmes made them feel good. He set the NFL touchdown record with 27 and rushed for 1,420 yards and caught 74 passes. But last year, Holmes played only eight games because of injuries and this year he played in only seven. At the age of 32, he's missed 15 games in the last two seasons and is getting back and neck checkups to see whether he will even play in 2006.
Alexander believes, like all backs, that he can defy the odds after 1,697 carries and six seasons of running. He can come back and say Walter Payton, Curtis Martin, Tony Dorsett, John Riggins and Ricky Watters had career years in their 30s.
Coming off a possible MVP season, Alexander will probably get a six- or seven-year deal, but will it be from Seattle?
"I think I just get better every year," Alexander said. "There are some games where I thought I didn't play that well, where I have had great stats. Then there has been some games where my stats weren't as good, but to me it was good. Overall, I think this year has been strong."
Alexander is hung up on one number -- Tomlinson's. The Seahawks are hung up on another -- age 29. Maybe Alexander's window as a great back can continue for three or more years.
"I have said it tons of times that I would love to be here," Alexander said to reporters this week. "It is a business. The Seahawks have to make their own decisions. I am going to be happy for whatever they do. I have said it three years, I guess no one was listening when I said this team could be in the Super Bowl three, four years in a row. I was telling you all that from the beginning, there was only a couple pieces missing. We put it together this last offseason. I will say it again, this team could be good for three or four years."
But will Alexander be here for that time? No one knows.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.