When this piece, about Chicago Bears running back Marion Barber announcing his retirement from football at age 28, popped up recently I decided to bookmark the story, although I was not entirely sure why. After all, while Barber was considered a solid NFL player for just about all of his seven year career, his particularly bruising style of play, combined with the typically short useful life span of NFL running backs, make his retirement from the game at what is a young age for just about any other vocation not terribly unusual or surprising. NFL players don't last long, and only the most durable and successful NFL running backs have careers much longer than Barber's seven years.
NFL and other professional sports teams talent management professionals have long learned to adapt their practices and talent strategies to the short careers of their players. Team depth charts showing three and four levels of potential (and often needed on extremely short notice) successors, detailed scouting reports of potential college hires (draftees), and a constantly updated assessment of replacement talent either currently employed by other teams, or on the open market are all staples of the professional sports team's head of talent. Although even I would admit not all sports/business/talent management comparisons hold water upon closer examination, even the most skeptical observers would have to acknowledge that the manner in which professional sports teams are constantly planning for the departure of their most important players, whether through injury, retirement, or even at times a sudden, and almost unexplainable drop in performance, is something to be learned from and even copied.
In that light, in addition to a constant vigilance towards succession planning, pro sports talent managers have another skill (mostly) down cold - namely maintaining a keen understanding of when they need to overpay for talent and where they don't, and that to me is the more interesting aspect of the Barber retirement, (even if in this particular case the issue did not appear to be money).
In the NFL while running back has been a traditional high-profile position, over time and due in part to a heavier reliance by teams on the passing game, the difference in production between the top few running backs in the league and the average performers at the position has been diminishing in statistical terms, as well as in overall value to team success. And time and time again it has been shown that rookie or second-year backs can perform to acceptable levels, while being paid significantly less than more experienced players. Essentially the league, and the talent managers from the teams, have determined that running back is a position where value usually trumps longevity, only the very best performers are worth rewarding with above market contracts, and replacements are readily found.
So Marion Barber, a seven-year vet and for the most part an above average performer for the majority of his career hangs it up at age 28 and the Bears, the rest of the league, and the average NFL fan barely notices. The Bears can and will easily find at least a half dozen viable replacements. And that is I suppose another talent management lesson that we can learn from the NFL. That even the seemingly most easily replaceable elements of the team are indeed, easily replaced.
And when you can say that about your talent management plans and succession bench strength, that you have the answer and plan ready to go for every spot on the team, then maybe you'll be ready when your next 28 year old, in a high profile spot, and a solid performer decides to walk out the door.