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The fountain of youth consists of two parts levitation and one part Matt Schaub

In a year where offensive fireworks dominated the headlines, here’s a piece of trivia on the other side of the ball: 36-year-old London Fletcher led the league in tackles. Fletcher, like Ray Lewis, is past the point where he can be referred to by his name alone. Instead, both get the honorific “ageless” before their names. The ageless Ray Lewis made his thirteenth Pro Bowl last season, putting him one behind Merlin Olsen and Bruce Matthews for the record. While it’s tempting to say Lewis is making Pro Bowl berths based on reputation now, I don’t think it’s his play is undeserving of such recognitiion. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis was the 5th best inside linebacker last season. As for London Fletcher, he also registered in the top ten according to PFF. And while Fletcher was never as dominant as Lewis, ‘ageless’ simply has replaced ‘criminally underrated’ for Fletcher, a moniker that preceded his name most of the time for the last decade.

I think most of us know that it’s pretty incredible that these two are 37-years-old and still playing at high levels (well, at least we expect them to in 2012). But do we really recognize how truly rare this is? There are eleven modern era inside linebackers currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The table below lists them chronologically based on the year they entered the league. The columns show the “Approximate Value” or “AV” score (as defined by Pro-Football-Reference) assigned to each linebacker for each season during his thirties.

Mike Singletary181213159000
Harry Carson71013149600
Jack Lambert1717200000
Willie Lanier95500000
Dick Butkus156000000
Nick Buoniconti91116149010
Ray Nitschke16151097220
Sam Huff118860600
Les Richter119200000
Joe Schmidt172190000
Bill George171415919609

Remember, in 2011, Lewis and Fletcher were both 36. At that age, Mike Singletary had been retired for two years. Jack Lambert had been retired for four. Dick Butkus had been gone for five seasons. In April 2010, Jason Lisk wrote this article at the PFR Blog, which noted that inside linebackers and safeties have shortest careers among the top defensive players. Lisk continued his research over at the USA Today 2010 NFL Preview Magazine, where he noted that the league had three young, excellent inside linebackers, and researched how young, talented inside linebackers have fared as they aged:

Almost half (49%) of the best young inside linebackers since 1978 were either completely out of the game or effectively finished and never were able to play in at least ten games again by the time they turned 30. Young star inside linebackers, including the likes of John Offerdahl, Dino Hackett, and Jeremiah Trotter, missed roughly one-quarter of the available games between ages 26 and 29.

Ray Lewis is truly a rare player, still playing strong in 2009 at age 34…. Lofa Tatupu missed eleven games last season at age 27, while Jonathan Vilma struggled with injuries in his last year in New York. These players are still active and we do not know how long they will play, though the fact that Tatupu and Vilma have already missed over half a season does not bode well for playing well into their thirties. Jeremiah Trotter was also technically active as of last season, but he has not started regularly since 2006, and is unlikely to ever play as a regular starter again.

Among the officially retired players, half of them were done before age 30. Stars like Jack Lambert and Randy Gradishar continued to play well as they approached age 30, but last started at age 31. Gradishar, in fact, has seen his candidacy for Canton stall in part because of concerns that he did not play long enough. As we can see, though, he played longer than the typical young star inside linebacker. The Hall of Fame selectors will have to come to grips with this reality of the attrition rates at the position, or it will be under-represented in Canton going forward. The selectors have made exceptions for players with short but brilliant careers at the running back position, and those same standards may be necessary for the position primarily charged with tackling those runners. Only four inside/middle linebackers who built the bulk of their profiles post-merger are currently members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Willie Lanier, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, and Harry Carson. (Ray Lewis will certainly be the fifth upon his retirement). Compare that to the six Hall of Famers at the position who played in just the decade prior to the merger. A veteran cynic might say that the linebackers of their youth were better; a realist might say that the size and speed of the game has made the position that much more hazardous.

Patrick Willis, Jon Beason or DeMeco Ryans may prove to be one of the rare exceptions, like Ray Lewis, who can both star at a young age and continue long enough to guarantee a place among the all-time greats at career’s end. History suggests, though, that it is unlikely they all play well into their thirties.

A few months after Lisk’s article, DeMeco Ryans tore his achilles and missed the last 10 games of the 2010 season. He struggled in the Texans’ 3-4 defense in 2011 — he’s a two-down linebacker that was frequently on the bench in Houston’s defense — and was traded to the Eagles this off-season. A year ago, Beason signed the richest contract ever given to a middle linebacker, but missed nearly the entire 2011 season with a torn achilles. He’s also questionable for the opener as of today with a hamstring injury. Patrick Willis continued to play at an All-Pro level for years, although he’s also been dealing with injuries since Lisk’s article. In 2010, he broke his right hand twice; last season, a hamstring injury kept him out of three full games and part of another.

The short takeaway: middle linebacker is a brutal position and takes a toll on a player’s body. We know this, because the offensive equivalent of the middle linebacker is the running back, and we’ve all heard that running backs hit the wall at 30. Middle linebackers and running backs are subject to constant beating and wear and tear, and the cumulative effect of those hits certainly shortens career.

Or, at least I should say, it used to. The table below shows the amount of AV produced by all inside linebackers after turning 33 years of age. As it turns out, three of the top five players since 1950 were all active last season:

Games Misc
Rk Player From To Tm Lg G GS Yrs PB AP1 AV
1 Sam Mills 1992 1997 TOT NFL 89 87 6 2 1 66
2 Ray Lewis 2008 2011 RAV NFL 60 60 4 3 2 59
3 Bill Pellington 1960 1964 CLT NFL 68 0 5 0 0 46
4 James Farrior 2008 2011 PIT NFL 62 62 4 1 0 43
5 London Fletcher 2008 2011 WAS NFL 64 64 4 2 0 43
6 Bill George* 1962 1966 TOT NFL 51 0 5 0 1 43
7 Hardy Nickerson 1998 2002 TOT NFL 63 61 5 2 0 39
8 Jack Reynolds 1980 1984 TOT NFL 69 68 5 1 0 39
9 Scott Studwell 1987 1990 MIN NFL 59 58 4 2 0 35
10 Gary Plummer 1993 1997 TOT NFL 77 73 5 0 0 34
11 Steve Nelson 1984 1987 NWE NFL 52 52 4 2 0 32
12 Lee Roy Jordan 1974 1976 DAL NFL 42 14 3 1 0 31
13 Harry Carson* 1986 1988 NYG NFL 40 38 3 2 0 29
14 Bill Bergey 1978 1980 PHI NFL 35 35 3 1 0 26
15 Keith Brooking 2008 2011 TOT NFL 64 49 4 0 0 24
16 Nick Buoniconti* 1973 1976 MIA NFL 37 26 3 1 0 24
17 Mike Singletary* 1991 1992 CHI NFL 32 32 2 2 1 24
18 Zach Thomas 2006 2008 TOT NFL 37 35 3 1 1 24
19 Shelton Quarles 2004 2006 TAM NFL 43 43 3 0 0 23
20 Jessie Tuggle 1998 2000 ATL NFL 38 37 3 1 0 23
21 Tedy Bruschi 2006 2008 NWE NFL 44 42 3 0 0 22
22 Marvcus Patton 2000 2002 KAN NFL 48 45 3 0 0 22
23 Takeo Spikes 2009 2011 TOT NFL 47 47 3 0 0 22
24 Vince Costello 1965 1968 TOT NFL 43 14 4 0 0 21
25 Ray Nitschke* 1969 1972 GNB NFL 48 0 4 0 0 20

James Farrior’s play clearly dropped off — he recently retired — but he still started 62 games for elite defenses after turning 33. Keith Brooking managed to hang around with the Cowboys for far longer than their fans would have liked, and is now in Denver trying to make the Broncos roster. But Fletcher and Lewis are legitimate starters — and stars — of their defenses. Fifteen years ago, Sam Mills and Gary Plummer each started 16 games, but this level of play is extremely rare. The million dollar question remains: are Fletcher/Lewis just this generation’s Mills/Plummer, or has the game fundamentally changed?

With more passing and less running, the brutal effects of playing middle linebacker are are least slightly minimized. Lewis dropped his weight significantly this off-season to prepare for an NFL that has seen the pendulum shift from strength towards speed. I’m not sure if I have any conclusions here, but I can recognize that seeing Lewis and Fletcher still playing as starters this late in their career is incredibly unique. It’s just that it might not be so incredibly unique in a few years. Of course, as the game changes, it’s possible middle linebackers won’t rack up many starts as they hit their late thirties not because their bodies will have broken down, but because they will lack the speed now necessary to play the position.

  • Danish

    It’s foolish to assume any drop off from guys like Lewis, Tony Gonzales, Brett Favre, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash etc. until they do. These guys simply seem to be made from something that completely transcends anything we know or think we know about aging atheletes.

  • Richie

    I went to the original table for your data, to see how many guys contributed past age 33. I limited the list to guys who averaged 1+ AV per season during their age 33+ seasons. There are 76 of them.

    Of those 76:
    14 of them turned 33 between 2006 and 2010, but only 5 of them turned 33 between 2001 and 2005.

    Then from 1990-1995, there were 11 guys who turned 33. So, things kind of peaked in the early 90’s, but then dropped down again until the mid-2000’s.

    Even if you look at the cumulative AV of these guys, the mid-2000’s crop dominates.

    No matter how you look at it, the mid-2000’s guys are at a peak. But there have been other peaks (early 90s, early 70s) – especially if you adjust for the number of teams in the league.

    That got me to thinking two things:

    1) Maybe right now we just have a group of guys who are abnormally good at their age.
    2) Maybe the change to a pass-heavy offensive philosophy in the NFL is saving the careers of the middle linebackers.

  • Independent George

    Somewhat off-topic, but does anybody else find it odd that Sam Mills isn’t even in the conversation for the HoF, while his teammate Rickey Jackson is already in? I don’t have a dog in the fight, but most accounts I’ve read consider Mills the leader of the Dome Patrol, not Jackson. His 126 career AV is diminished by three years in the USFL.