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LeSean McCoy thinks he can play until age 33

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The veteran runner wants to continue for four more seasons

For people in most professions, 29 years old is nowhere near the end of one’s time at work. For an NFL running back, however, 29 is often looked at like 59 in the real world. As LeSean McCoy enters camp having just turned 29 this month, reporters have questioned his ability to continue producing at a high level for the Buffalo Bills. McCoy answered confidently regarding his physical conditioning, saying that he believes he can play until he is 33 years old.

“I feel good...I feel the same,” he said in an interview with ESPN’s Mike Rodak. According to McCoy, his running style lends itself to his having greater longevity in the NFL, as he relies on speed and avoiding hits more than he does bowling over his opponents. He did admit, however, that “...when that kind of turns, when that leaves, I’ll be in trouble.”

At 29, McCoy admitted that he needs to do more to take care of his body than he did when he first entered the league. His emphasis on a proper diet and adequate sleep is something that he “didn’t think about as a player,” and he’d “probably never done until like, last year.” Advancing age forces athletes at all levels to reassess their workout regimens, whether with regard to intensity during the session or the amount of time necessary to recover afterward. As a professional athlete, the effort necessary to maintain the required level of conditioning is obviously much greater than an average Joe trying to stay in shape.

McCoy has more carries (1,898) than every active running back in the league save three: Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, and Matt Forte. His 8,954 yards since entering the league in 2009 are the most in the NFL during that span.

A running back’s age-29 season is often thought of as a regression year, but it really depends upon the workload that back has carried over the earlier part of his career. Some great running backs have had some great years at 29, while others have struggled, and some continued a decline that had begun earlier in their careers. Here’s a small sample of some runners and their age-28 and age-29 seasons:

Running backs at age 28/29

Player Age-28 Age-29
Player Age-28 Age-29
Emmitt Smith 261/1074/4; 40/234/0 319/1332/13; 27/175/2
Marshall Faulk 260/1382/12; 83/765/9 212/953/8; 80/537/2
Thurman Thomas 287/1093/7; 50/349/2 267/1005/6; 26/220/2
LaDanian Tomlinson 315/1474/15; 60/475/3 292/1110/11; 52/426/1
Edgerrin James 337/1159/6; 38/217/0 324/1222/7; 24/204/0
Warrick Dunn 125/672/3; 37/336/2 265/1106/9; 29/294/0
Matt Forte 289/1339/9; 74/594/3 266/1038/6; 102/808/4
LeSean McCoy 234/1267/13; 50/356/1 ?/?/?
Slash lines are carries/rushing yards/rushing touchdowns; receptions/receiving yards/receiving touchdowns, respectively All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference

What’s important to note is that McCoy has fewer touches on the ball at this point in his career than all of the other players on that table except for Warrick Dunn. Dunn went on to have a career-best year at age 30, and he was a productive back until his retirement at age 33. Thurman Thomas experienced a significant decline from age 26 to age 27, and his age-28 and age-29 seasons became a new normal for him as he finished his stellar career. Edgerrin James was already declining, as well, by the time he turned 28. McCoy’s age-28 season ranks fourth on that list in yards while ranking second-to-last in carries. His 5.4 yards per carry edges out Marshall Faulk’s age-28 average of 5.3 yards per tote for tops among those listed, as well.

For their part, the Bills are intent on managing his reps. Sean McDermott spoke about his workload before camp practice on Saturday.

“We’ll just see, we’ll see what he can handle,” said the head coach. “Like any player, we’re going to put him in the position to be successful and try to manage the downside and it’s no different with LeSean [McCoy]. Running backs, you love for them to play like LeSean every rep of a game, but that’s not realistic so we’ll see as we move week-to-week.”

If McCoy can continue to stay healthy and take care of himself, he may be able to reach his goal and elude Father Time for a few more years.