There's a truism in the NFL that once most running backs hit 30 years of age, their production tends to drop off precipitously.
"It can happen," conceded 33-year-old Patriots running back Kevin Faulk, "but it's all on you. It's all on how you improve your body, train your body, how you go during the course of your career."
New England's backfield has its share of 30 ball carriers. Besides Faulk, there is 32-year-old Sammy Morris and 33-year-old Fred Taylor. Given that reality, Faulk was asked on the first day of training camp whether or not their collective ages would be a concern this season.
"Obviously the coach didn't think so," he immediately replied, before adding this caveat.
"But we have to do what we have to do. We have to prove it."
Faulk insists that he's looking at the positive aspect of having so many older players at his position, noting that such experience offers an unparalleled level of leadership in the locker room and a decided edge on the field.
"These are guys," he observed, "that have been around, played a lot of football, know what it takes to win in the National Football League."
If these greybeards prove they can still do their part, however, the Patriots have the makings of perhaps the most talented group of ball carriers in Bill Belichick's 10-year tenure as head coach here in New England.
Faulk, Taylor, and Morris all enter camp healthy, as does 2006 first-round pick Laurence Maroney, whose 2008 season was cut short due to a shoulder injury. Second-year player BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who made the team a year ago as an undrafted rookie free agent, saw considerable action last season as a result of the many recurring injuries that followed Pats backs throughout the season.
That mixture of youth and experience gives Belichick confidence that this group of backs is capable of doing good things for this year's team. Especially considering that the backfield-by-committee approach was so successful a year ago. Each of the returning players started at least three games in '08, and Taylor, who spent the first 11 years of his career with Jacksonville, started 13 games for the Jags last season.
"We feel like we have good competition at the running back position," said Belichick during his initial press conference following the first practice of camp.
"Those guys have all really proven themselves. Laurence has done a lot of great things for us. Sammy Morris has done a great job for us. We like the players we have there in the backfield. We'll let them compete and let them play. I would think that we'd be able to get production from all of them."
"Competition is a beautiful thing," said Taylor, who was asked if Belichick expected to find a particular role for him, given his skill set and production over the year. Taylor answered that he was just told to study up, play football and be himself.
For his career, Taylor has averaged just over 1,000 yards per season. He only managed half that total a year ago, mostly because he split time with the much younger Maurice Jones-Drew. The knock against Taylor, as he acknowledged on the first day of camp, has been his injury history. But he said he uses that criticism – Fragile Fred was a derisive nickname he earned as a Jag – to fuel his desire to prove he still has gas left in his tank.
"Injuries are tough. The mental part of it, you can kind of block that out. Because once you get back on the field, you're just excited. But going through the [rehab] process, that's usually the toughest part. I really don't worry about the naysayers. I kind of use it as motivation."
Staying healthy isn't only a concern for the older guys, though. Maroney has been slowed by various injuries throughout his short career. But so far, Taylor likes what he's seen from Maroney and has been trying to encourage the fourth-year player that he can be the lead back for the Pats.
Taylor disclosed that, whenever he has a chance, he tries to give Maroney pointers or other words of advice to help improve his game. Taylor described Maroney as a "passionate" player who's been more than willing to accept his elder's wisdom.
"Reminds me of myself a little bit when I was younger, having to fight through the injuries," Taylor added. "But that's part of the game. He's a good running back. Very good running back. It's unfortunate that he's been through what he's been through, but if he keeps fighting back, he'll be OK."
Taylor's presence in New England has also been a blessing for Faulk. The two have known each other since Faulk was a high school senior and Taylor a freshman at the University of Florida. During recruiting trips to Gainesville, Faulk spent considerable time with Taylor and the two have been close ever since.
"It's awesome. Especially someone since I've known since high school. Just to have him in the meeting room is great for me, Laurence, Sammy … all of us."
Taylor, meanwhile, claimed that while his experience is an advantage, he still has a lot to learn and that he's looking to his teammates for support as much as they look to him for leadership.
"If I see someone slacking or not doing the right thing, I'll kind of pull them aside and say 'Hey, I don't think that will be for the better of the team.' I try not to overstep my boundaries. I do a great job, I think, of knowing when it's a good time to approach someone or be a leader.
"But I still gotta learn my playbook," Taylor concluded. "Still gotta learn some of my offensive linemen and a lot of the coaches names. I'm still getting used to everything.
"I try to take it a day at a time. I'm leaning on Kevin, I'm leaning on Laurence, Sammy, BenJarvus, using the coaches. I'm getting more and more comfortable each day."