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No Country for Old Running Backs

Arian Foster’s deal with Miami marks the end of his fantasy dominance

Getty Images
Getty Images

The life cycle of a fantasy running back god typically contains three distinct phases:

1. Breakout rookie or sophomore campaign marked by MVP status on many fantasy championship teams.

2. Two to five years as a consensus top-three pick, gracing magazine covers and inspiring team names (and possibly suffering a devastating injury or two).

3. Steep decline around age 30, often involving a team change, perpetual injury woes, and a dubious “mentorship” role (regardless of whether the player in question has any interest in being a mentor).

On Monday, Arian Foster signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins that confirmed his entrance into Phase 3. Last year’s injury-riddled, 163-rushing-yard season — in which Foster played in just four games and had more fumbles (two) than rushing touchdowns (one) — was no fluke: The onetime Texans legend is now just another NFL vagabond. He’ll likely be expected to mentor second-year back Jay Ajayi and rookie Kenyan Drake, and according to Fantasy Football Calculator, he’s currently going in the ninth round of most standard fantasy leagues. Next month, he’ll turn 30. Where did the time go?

ESPN The Magazine
ESPN The Magazine

In 2010, the second-year Tennessee product was a late-third-round fantasy pick — behind such luminaries as Rashard Mendenhall, Shonn Greene, and Ryan Grant — yet rewarded owners with 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns on 327 carries, scoring the most fantasy points in the NFL. With the help of Houston’s Alex Gibbs–inspired zone-blocking scheme, Foster became the latest in a line of fantasy running back gods, following in the footsteps of Jamal Lewis, Priest Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Maurice Jones-Drew.

Foster’s celebratory bow soon became a regular sight for fantasy owners:

He was a PPR monster, too, averaging nearly 50 catches in the four seasons he started 13 or more games, and in 2010, he led all running backs with 604 receiving yards:

He could cut on a dime …

… and if the defense overloaded the box, he could even play some quarterback:

It’s going to be incredibly disorienting — and a little sad — to watch the 30-year-old version of Foster fizzle out in Miami. Of course, this is nothing new: We’ve seen Tomlinson play for the Jets, MJD for the Raiders, and Frank Gore’s ghost for the Colts. This year, we’ll also have to get used to the sight of PPR legend Matt Forte in a Jets uniform, while Chris Johnson attempts to continue his mini resurgence in Arizona as a third-down back. (This is probably the best-case scenario for Foster’s Dolphins tenure.) Marshawn Lynch’s decision to retire at 29 and avoid this stage of his career isn’t the norm, but at least we won’t have to witness Beast Mode toil away in, like, Detroit. While I can’t fault Foster for taking $1.5 million from the Dolphins, I’d probably rather watch him recite poetry or tweet about cats than ride the pine behind Ajayi and Drake this season. This day was always going to come sooner than later — the short shelf lives of running backs has been a well-documented phenomenon — but as a football fan, it’s still tough to accept that Foster’s heyday is a thing of the past. We’ll always have that unicorn, though.