With careers closing like holes, NFL running out of great backs

There are only five great NFL running backs now -- the Detroit Lions' Barry Sanders, the Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith, the Buffalo Bills' Thurman Thomas, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Barry Foster and the New York Giants' Rodney Hampton.

The San Francisco 49ers' Ricky Watters thinks he's great. Los Angeles Rams rookie Jerome Bettis has a chance to be. Phoenix Cardinals rookie Garrison Hearst has shown nothing yet.


Great running backs are as scarce as great quarterbacks. Just when the supply looks plentiful, the demand on their bodies wears them out. Check their ages. Of the five greats, Thomas is the old man at 27.

That is why Foster recently got $9.7 million for four years, Thomas $13.5 million for four years, Smith $13.6 million for four years, Hampton $6.8 million for three years, and Sanders is waiting impatiently for his slice of the pie. Their value is high and their career span short.


This is why the Chicago Bears could afford to trade for Tim Worley and take a chance he'll stay ahead of the drug-abuse rules. He costs only $450,000 this season, is signed for next year at $550,000, and the Bears will give up no higher than a fourth-round draft choice in 1994 and no higher than a fifth in 1995, less if Worley fails drug tests.

Neal Anderson gets $1.6 million in this final year of his contract, and there is almost no way the Bears will renew it. Anderson will turn 30 before next season. Worley is only two years younger, but his body is over 1,000 carries less battered than Anderson's.

The Kansas City Chiefs' Marcus Allen is 33 and a dinosaur. The Allens and Walter Paytons and Ottis Andersons are special cases -- effective after 30.

The Philadelphia Eagles' Herschel Walker, a spot player now, was the only 30-year-old running back to gain 1,000 yards last year. The year before, the Chiefs' Christian Okoye was the only one. The year before that, the Bengals' 31-year-old James Brooks was the only one.

Eric Dickerson retired last week at 33, unable to pass the Green Bay Packers' physical. His last 1,000-yard season was at 29. O.J. Simpson's last 1,000-yard season was at 29. Earl Campbell's last 1,000 was at 28. Jim Brown retired at 29.

Payton gained 1,000 at 32 in 1986. John Riggins got 1,000 at 35. Tony Dorsett did it at 31, Ottis Anderson and Franco Harris at 32. It doesn't happen very often.

You get your money and run. Cincinnati's Harold Green, a 1,000-yard rusher last year at 25, was unhappy with contract negotiations last summer and is averaging 2 yards a carry.

Houston's Lorenzo White averaged 4.6 yards last year in a 1,000-yard season and is struggling at 3.5 with his star-crossed team this year. He's 27. The Rams' Cleveland Gary, also 27, came off a 1,000-yard season only to lose his job to Bettis. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Reggie Cobb, 25, is averaging 2.7 yards after his 1,000-yard season.


The Minnesota Vikings come to Soldier Field tonight without Terry Allen, the league's sixth-leading rusher last year, who blew out a knee in the preseason. The injury turned the Vikings' offense inside out. Barry Word is a 29-year-old stopgap.

A look around the league reveals teams in dire need of runners. The Miami Dolphins seem like they have been one running back away since Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick retired. The Raiders have speed, a pass rush and an eighth-round rookie running back named Greg Robinson.

The San Diego Chargers look at 27-year-old Marion Butts and don't see the 24-year-old sensation anymore. The New York Jets still are waiting for Blair Thomas.

The Washington Redskins opened their season with kick-return specialist Brian Mitchell as the featured back, turned to rookie Reggie Brooks and now have resurrected Ricky Ervins. The Packers traded for John Stephens only to discover why the 1-15 New England Patriots couldn't use him, then sent him to Atlanta in the Dickerson deal.

In the future, college stars Tyrone Wheatley, Marshall Faulk and Le- Shon Johnson will have no trouble getting jobs.

Keeping jobs is another thing, but running backs don't have to send resumes. The pros will call.