Should NFL Players Take a Year Off?

Chris Cooley was a two-time Pro Bowl tight end in Washington. He had five 700-yard receiving seasons, and he was a good blocker. He started 71 games in a row before a season-ending injury in 2009, but came back to start every game in 2010, tying his career high in receiving yardage. After that, recovering from a knee injury, he was quickly phased out of the offense. He quietly retired after the 2012 season, and a comeback attempt last year, at age 33, never materialized into a roster spot.

Cooley works on Washington's radio broadcast team, and co-hosts The Drive, a weekly radio show. On Friday, Cooley brought up an idea I've wondered about for years: should NFL players take a year off? The radio segment starts around the 1:30 mark and lasts about 10 minutes, if you want to check it out.

Cooley described the life of a professional football player, "It's this constant beating you're putting on your body from the time you're 14 years old until the time you're done with the NFL. Honestly, I grew to love football more and more, and my body grew to hate football more and more, and the two wouldn't agree. And it got to this point where had I had that one year off, and that was copacetic, I think it would have helped me. And I think it would have helped a lot of players. I think, you look at a B.J. Raji ... maybe a Patrick Willis, Calvin Johnson for sure, and you just say ... if you were to sit out a year, be there, maybe not meet every day, as much as they do, but have a year off, a sabbatical, we'll call it."

Speaking to his co-host, Cooley continued, "You asked me a good question earlier in this week. You said to me, 'Is the offseason enough time to recover?' For me, at 23, 24, 25, yeah. At 26, 27, 28, no. That three-month span wasn't enough time to recover. And after I took a year off, I wanted to play. I really, really wanted to play. The year I was cut, I did not have that immediate fire and that drive to go play for anybody or go play anywhere. I almost thought of it as, this August is going to feel really nice when I don't have to go beat the crap out of myself. But the next August I wanted to do it again."

There's a lot more, and it's worth listening to. Cooley talks about the grind of football — getting up to lift weights, going to meetings, practices, games, film study — and believes that year off could help players who are worn down — physically, mentally, or both — continue their careers at a high level: "Take a year off, think about something you've done since you were a child, something you love, look at it as a game, want to come back, love it for the last four years."

There's certainly something to that. In a video posted on the Georgia athletics site, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford spoke about Calvin Johnson's retirement: "Not to say that I expected it, but I wasn't shocked. I've known Calvin for seven years and know the effort and the attitude that he plays with, and it takes a toll on people ... I knew the NFL was kind of wearing on him." (via Detroit Free Press)

Johnson just announced his retirement at age 29, the first player ever to retire following a 1,200-yard receiving season. Would someone like Johnson benefit from Cooley's plan? Take a year off: a year away from the physical beating, a year away from the stress of constantly trying to perform at your best, a year away from the emotional ups and downs of winning or losing every week. Could Johnson come back in 2017 and perform better than he would have in 2016? That seems very realistic to me.

In fact, I've wondered about something like Cooley's plan for years now, but more dramatic and more specific. I believe NFL running backs might be well-served to take a year away from the game. No practices, no meetings — stay in shape, but away from football. There are three specific players whose careers lead me to believe this would be a good idea: John Riggins, Ricky Williams, and Adrian Peterson.

John Riggins

John Riggins was a good player for Washington and for the New York Jets in the 1970s. A sprint and long jump champion in high school, Riggins was a 230-pound fullback with power, but also some speed and some shiftiness. He rushed for 1,000 yards three times, caught 30 passes three times, and made a Pro Bowl. Riggins set a career-high with 1,014 rushing yards in 1978. He broke that mark the next year, with 1,153. But he didn't like the way the coaching staff was using him, and he wanted more money. So in 1980, Riggins didn't play.

When Joe Gibbs became head coach in 1981, he enticed Riggins back into the game. Now 32, Riggins had left speed and shiftiness behind. He weighed closer to 245, and he was all power: The Diesel, they called him. In '81, Riggins led the team with 13 touchdowns. In '82, he powered Washington through the NFC playoffs and was named MVP of Super Bowl XVII. In '83, he rushed for a career-best 1,347 yards and broke the single-season TD record, 24. In '84, Riggins rushed for 1,239 yards — 300 more than any other player at the same age.

How did a man like Riggins, known for his no-holds-barred partying, become the most productive old running back in the history of football? Did the year off, at age 31, give him a chance to recover, and come back at 100% in 1981? We never knew, but evidence is beginning to suggest so.

Ricky Williams

A Heisman Trophy winner at Texas, Ricky Williams was one of the most hyped draft prospects in recent memory. The Saints gave up an enormous haul of draft picks for the right to select him. After three solid but disappointing seasons, New Orleans traded Williams to Miami, also for a rich price tag. Williams responded with a league-leading 1,853 rushing yards, 47 catches, and 17 touchdowns. But he was shouldering a terrific workload, 383 carries. The following season, he handled 392 rush attempts and 50 receptions. He had a good season, but he was getting worn down. That summer, he announced his retirement.

This is only speculation, but it has always seemed simplistic to me to attribute Williams' retirement to his impending suspension for marijuana use. Williams is a complex guy, an unusual guy. The spotlight and the pressure of being an NFL star didn't suit him, and his off-field interests drew powerfully upon him.

Williams returned to the Dolphins in 2005. Following a partial season in '05, a season-long suspension in '06, and a season-ending injury in his only game in '07, most fans assumed that Williams was finished as a significant player. We were wrong. Williams played four more years and rushed for nearly 3,000 yards, including 1,121 (with a 4.7 average and 11 TDs) in 2009. It's the third-highest rushing total ever by a 32-year-old player, trailing only Hall of Famers Walter Payton and John Henry Johnson.

Adrian Peterson

John Riggins is a Hall of Famer, and Ricky Williams was a very good player. But Adrian Peterson is the greatest RB of his generation, one of the best in history. In 2013, he rushed for 1,266 yards, with a 4.5 average and 10 TDs. In 2014, he missed nearly the whole season due to a suspension from the league.

Prior to the 2014 season, I did some fantasy-football-themed research which suggested that Peterson was an unwise investment in that year's fantasy draft. The sample size of my study was quite small, only nine, but found that players of roughly the same age, workload, and recent performance had tended to fall off dramatically. Barry Sanders and Ricky Watters were the only exceptions. "Apart from Walter Payton," I noted, "Most running backs who had top-five fantasy seasons after turning 29 were guys who had been underutilized early in their careers." Peterson carried 238 times as a rookie, and in six subsequent seasons had at least 275 rushes in every year, except once when his season was cut short by serious injury.

Peterson's age, combined with his wear-and-tear, suggested a player about to decline. We'll never know what Peterson might or might not have accomplished in 2014, but when he returned in 2015, he led the league in rushing and earned unanimous all-pro honors. It's one of the finest age-30 seasons in history.

It is both difficult and ill-advised to draw sweeping conclusions from a sample of only three players. But Riggins, Williams, and Peterson all exceeded expectations in their returns from a year away. Riggins and Williams had unusually long careers, and both had some of their finest seasons after turning 30. Peterson appears poised for similar success.

I don't think Cooley's year-long layaway would benefit every player, but I do suspect there are many — especially running backs — who might benefit from taking a year off around age 29-30. And if Calvin Johnson chose to return to football in 2017, I wouldn't bet against him.

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