The CFL may be a league where experience is often valued, but one position where that isn't typically the case is running back. That pattern was confirmed with the Calgary Stampeders' release of running back Joffrey Reynolds Monday. Reynolds happens to be the franchise rushing leader, and he was a key part of the Stampeders' 2008 Grey Cup victory, but he's a 32-year-old who saw his yards-per-carry average drop to a career-low 4.7 this season and lost his starting spot to Canadian Jon Cornish midway through the year. 32 isn't terribly old by most CFL standards, as 43 per cent of the 2010 divisional all-stars were 30 or older, but it's very high by running back standards. Thus, it's difficult to see Reynolds catching on elsewhere unless it's as a backup with a much lower salary.
This increased aging curve for running backs isn't specific to the CFL, of course. Pro Football Reference did an excellent NFL study on the subject a while back with some very interesting results. Here are the key parts:
"This tends to suggest that the peak period for running backs is age 27-28. As a group, running backs under 27 tend to improve, and running backs over 27 tend to decline. ... According to this data, the word "old" means 28 for a running back, 30 for a receiver, and 32 for a quarterback. This is probably not a surprise, as it squares fairly well with conventional wisdom. Old players, as a group, will decline, although the phenomenon is far from universal."
Given the value of experience in the Canadian game, it would make sense to bump those aging curves up a couple of years for the CFL, but the general pattern should still hold. Running backs as a group tend to show the effects of age faster than receivers, who in turn tend to show them more quickly than quarterbacks. That makes intuitive sense: running the ball effectively tends to be more about raw speed, elusiveness and power than experience or mental decisions, while the converse is true for quarterbacks, especially in the CFL. Running backs also tend to be hit more, as just about every run ends with a hard tackle. You can have the strongest arm in the world, but it won't help much if you don't make good reads and decisions. For running backs, though, there isn't a lot you can do to compensate once your pure athletic abilities start to decline.
Reynolds is far from the only CFL back to show the effects of age in recent years, and he's fought them off longer than some. One of the most prominent cases in point is Charles Roberts, who was a league all-star every season from 2001 to 2007 with Winnipeg, but was traded to B.C. midway through the 2008 season and then wasn't offered a contract for the 2009 season, when he would have been just 30. Interestingly enough, the man he was traded for was another running back, Joe Smith, who had great success with B.C. but was released by Winnipeg in July of 2009, a month before his 30th birthday. Another similar player is former Toronto running back John Avery, cut loose by the Argonauts in 2008 shortly after he turned 32. Those are only a few of the numerous examples of running backs whose CFL careers ended before they hit 32.
Some CFL running backs have managed to persist beyond that age, but their last few years have usually seen them find less success and be used in smaller roles. B.C.'s Jamal Robertson retired this offseason
after winning the Grey Cup at age 34, but he was rarely used this past season and mostly backed up Andrew Harris down the stretch. The legendary Mike Pringle was still a regular player for Edmonton at the age of 37 in 2004, and he ran for 1,141 yards that season, but he recorded a career-low 4.4 yards per carry and retired after the season. Of current starting CFL running backs, Hamilton's Avon Cobourne and Saskatchewan's Wes Cates are both 32 (and, like Reynolds, turning 33 this year), and both seem likely to be back this coming year, but both also saw their yards-per-carry numbers drop this past season (to 4.8 and 4.9 respectively). Perhaps they still have something in the tank like Robertson and Pringle, but age catches everyone eventually.
The clear trend of age and the limited market for starting running backs makes it highly unlikely we'll see Reynolds in a starter's role this season, but that doesn't mean he couldn't still contribute somewhere. Many veteran running backs in both the CFL and the NFL have been able to chip in when needed and generally bring experience and leadership to a locker room. A great case in point is former Toronto Argonaut Ricky Williams, who Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote a terrific feature about this past week for The Baltimore Sun. The 34-year-old Williams, who's arguably in better shape than most running backs of his age thanks to the years he wasn't playing and his intense fitness regimen, still only picked up 444 yards this year, but he proved to be a valuable part of a Ravens' team that made the AFC championship game and a crucial mentor for young star Ray Rice. Reynolds could perhaps find himself in a similar role this season, and he could still be an important piece for a team that needs some leadership, but his days as one of the top running backs in the CFL are probably done. Age may prove to be the one tackler he couldn't shake.