There’s no question that RB Fred Jackson is one of the most popular Buffalo Bills on the current roster. Of course much of that has to do with his long tenure with the team, having now played with them since 2006. To put that into perspective, the Bills first pick of the 2015 draft, RB Karlos Williams, was 13 when Jackson took his first handoff for the Bills. Little wonder a devoted fan base, constantly adjusting to new faces, has connected with the charismatic Jackson, who is a hard worker, a good community citizen, and a committed family man off the field. What’s not to love?
But there are many who think that love has left Bills fans a tad biased about Jackson’s potential with the team in the future. The arrival of LeSean McCoy marked one of the biggest gets of the offseason, and with the selection of Williams (not to mention the continued presence of Bryce Brown and Boobie Dixon), it would seem that a 34-year-old RB might be well past his days of productivity.
That’s right. Jackson is now 34, well beyond the age (which seems to be about 30) when running backs hit the proverbial wall. The list of backs who go from feast to famine is a long one, and it demonstrates the unpredictability of the position. Both real world owners and fantasy owners are often caught unprepared for the swift decline in a back when they hit the three-decade mark. So how has Jackson managed to stick around four years (so far) beyond that breaking point?
Simply put, it’s all about mileage. Though Jackson will be well into his 35th year by the time the 2015 season starts, this year will mark only his 10th season in the NFL. Having gone undrafted at the end of his college career at Coe in 2003, Jackson played for the Sioux City Bandits and the Rhein Fire before finally getting his shot at NFL glory. Since his arrival in Buffalo, Jackson has played in 106 games, has had 1279 rushing attempts and has accumulated 5646 yards. Roughly translated, Jackson has run a 5K in a Bills uniform over the course of nine seasons.
By comparison, let’s look at some of the star running backs that have come along in recent years, hit it big, and then faded away. LaDainian Tomlinson, the 2006 MVP with the San Diego Chargers, played until he was just 31, but in his 11 seasons in the league, he piled up 13,684 yards in 3174 attempts, playing in 170 total games. Even if you add in Jackson’s career before joining the Bills (1770 yards in Sioux City and 731 for Rhein), he’s still racked up less than 60 percent of the yardage Tomlinson had overall.
Shaun Alexander, the 2005 NFL MVP, played nine seasons for the Seattle Seahawks (with a couple of insignificant final games with the Redskins), amassing 2187 attempts and 9429 in 123 games. Although he captured the MVP with a big season that saw his Seahawks play in their first Super Bowl, Alexander was never able to match his success that season, and in fact he never played a full 16-game season thereafter.
Alexander’s team was beaten in that Super Bowl by the Pittsburgh Steelers by a score of 21-10, and his counterpart in that game was Steelers RB Jerome Bettis, who retired following that season, his 13th in the league. By that time Bettis, who turned 34 just 11 days after their Super Bowl victory, had piled up 3479 attempts for 13,662 in 192 games. Given his age relative to Jackson’s, it’s easy to see how young, by comparison, Fred’s legs really are.
Of course if football were just about numbers, most of us could grab jobs at ESPN’s annual draft extravaganza. It’s easy to look at a career on paper and make judgments and predictions. But given Jackson’s work ethic, it’s easy to imagine he’ll give the whippersnappers in camp a run (no pun intended) for their money. And what would be better than watching #22 quiet the naysayers with a big season and his first trip to the NFL playoffs?