We all remember how many eyebrows were raised when the Buffalo Bills signed Richie Incognito to a one-year deal last season, given his tumultuous history in the league and the coaching staff he was going to be playing under (the phrase "building a bully" reached Crying Jordan-level usage for a short while).
We also remember that, for all of the things that went wrong last season, the Incognito signing was a smashing success. He started every game, earned a Pro Bowl nod, and generally had no problems on or off the field. In turn, he was rewarded with a three-year deal this offseason that was generally regarded as the best signing the team made.
How are those three seasons likely to go, though?
Last season, Incognito had the benefit of a year and a half of rest, largely due to a situation that we all remember well enough for me to skip the re-hashing here. If there was any rust from all that time off, he certainly didn't show it, and he became the 61st offensive lineman in the last 30 years to earn a Pro Bowl selection during or after his age-32 season. Of those 61, just over half (33) went on to make at least one return trip, led by Bruce Matthews' unbelievable nine (!) Pro Bowl selections after he turned 32.
Statistical analysis tends to fall apart when discussing individual linemen, since their performance is so closely tied to the rest of the line that it can be hard to single out individual linemen without some combination of film analysis and play-by-play data. Combined with the fact that only nine of the 34 with multiple Pro Bowls have played in the last ten years, using past performances to estimate future results is a sticky proposition.
Cutting down the list of players from "all offensive linemen" to "guards" drops the 61/33 ratio to 24/10, which is a much easier number to work with that is still representative of the group as a whole. Looking in that group, Incognito already stands as an outlier in one key stat: his approximate value last season was 9. Only Incognito, Alan Faneca, Larry Allen, Nate Newton, and Logan Mankins made a Pro Bowl at 32 or older with an AV under 10, and only Mankins (who announced his retirement this offseason) didn't make at last two appearances after the cutoff date. Of course, an offensive lineman's AV is based on the performance of the entire group and portioned out by position, so it's an unfair metric to use when talking about linemen, but it still stands out when you consider how good Buffalo's rushing attack was last year.
Longevity is a key factor in this group, and it's something that definitely favors Incognito. The average age of the 22 retired guards in the group at the time of either their last Pro Bowl or their last 16-game season (whichever came later) is 34.9, which would take Incognito through two years of his three-year deal. Of course, it's also important to note that only two of the other 23 guards played fewer games through their age-31 season than Incognito's 102. Evan Mathis (89), the other active player in the group, started 12 games for the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos last season at age 34, and Ray Brown (88) never started more than 10 games in a season until he turned 31 in 1993. Brown went on to start 16 games in a season nine times, made the Pro Bowl as a 39-year-old in 2001, and retired after appearing in 15 games for the Washington Redskins in 2005 at age 43. If there's a maximum amount of wear-and-tear that can be endured, Incognito isn't quite at the threshold just yet.
It's really hard to project how well Incognito is going to play going forward, since building a model off of older, comparable players isn't a project for the faint of heart (which it seems I am). Still, there's enough evidence to suggest that he hasn't quite hit the wall that comes with taking too much punishment in the trenches.
If you ask him, he'd probably tell you the same thing:
"Aging and Unathletic" pic.twitter.com/iRxda9QNO7— Richie Incognito (@68INCOGNITO) July 21, 2016