There are ample examples of all-time great professional athletes staying around one year too long.
Athletes past their prime often tarnish their image by getting one extra campaign out of a body that should have called it quits earlier.
Willie Mays with the New York Mets, Bob Cousy with the Cincinnati Royals and Franco Harris with the Seattle Seahawks come to mind as of late.
It’s premature to put Walter Payton in that category -- yet. But Payton, in his 13th and what he insists is his final NFL season, isn’t going out the way many people would have liked.
After gaining 1,333 yards in his 12th season to extend his NFL career rushing mark, Payton has found the going tough this year. Not only is he likely to gain fewer yards than any time in his career, but he has seen the backfield spotlight taken away by second-year pro Neal Anderson.
There is the NFL strike to consider here. Payton missed four games and the argument can be made that at his age, coming back is harder than it is for a younger player.
But statistics seldom lie. Payton didn’t get over the 100-yard rushing mark for the season until midway through the Nov. 1 game with Kansas City. The 100-yard mark for a single game is one of Payton’s trademarks.
Payton has always had a love-hate relationship with the print media and dismissed any notion of his slowing down.
“We’re winning. That’s what’s important. That’s what I’ve been saying all along but you guys don’t always listen,” Payton says.
Bears’ Coach Mike Ditka is quick to rush to Payton’s defense when any mention of Payton having an off-year is made.
“You guys don’t see it, but his blocking has never been better,” Ditka says. “He’s out there catching passes, too. We just haven’t been in a position to get Walter the ball as much as in the past.”
Part of Ditka’s theory is true. Chicago has fallen way behind in some games this year, forcing it to go to the pass more often.
“What I like about what we’re doing still is that we’re so versatile. We’ve got so many different formations that we can confuse opponents,” Payton says. “Again, we’re falling behind so we haven’t been running as much.”
In the past several years, the Bears have dominated opponents early. They went to the running game and that meant Payton would get 25 to 30 carries per game.
“Walter is still the best athlete I’ve ever seen,” says Bears’ running back coach Johnny Roland. “We also have another running back in there in Neal Anderson and he needs to get a certain amount of carries.”
Ditka also denies the Bears have started to abandon Payton as part of the game plan.
“Look at the number of carries. It’s about split even, isn’t it?” Ditka asks.
But Ditka insists he wants to use his entire corps of running backs for the final seven games of the season.
“Now you guys (the media) may look at it that we won’t be using this one guy (Payton) as much and that’s fine if that’s how you want to look at it,” Ditka says, “but that also means Anderson won’t get as many carries.”
The running chores have been split equally between Payton and Anderson. But for more than a decade, Payton has been a workhorse back who usually carried the ball two times out of every three for Chicago.
While Payton’s numbers are down considerably this year -- he has 160 yards in five games -- he is still playing on what many consider the best team in the NFL. He also manages to avoid injuries which may be the most amazing statistic in his arsenal.
He hasn’t missed a start since his rookie season but some argue his ability to shake off the smaller, nagging injuries may be hurting him.
“I’ve never seen anyone like him. He’s the best athlete I’ve ever seen and he’s still the best player in the NFL,” Ditka says.
The recent NFL strike prompted some suggestions that Payton might reconsider and stay around an extra year.
“This is still my last,” Payton says. “I want to go out with a Super Bowl ring again.”
Payton will miss football but has the ambitious goal of obtaining a NFL expansion franchise. He has already met with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle on the subject. He also has several business ventures including a restaurant in suburban Chicago.
Whether his diminished statistics put a damper on any changes in his retirement plans remain to be seen. Most opponents still key on him in their game plans and Ditka notes Payton is more capable of having an “explosive” day than anyone else.
“I don’t understand what all the talk is. Here is the best football player ever and people are questioning about how we use him and whether he can still play,” Ditka says. “Let me tell you, he could play another three years if he wants to. We’d want him.”