In the minds of football coaches, there are a couple of factors to determine whether a veteran running back has lost it.
First, you look at the legs. If he has lost half a step, his instincts can compensate for that loss. If he has lost a full step, you wonder.
Next, you look at his heart. Is it still ticking? No, is it still pounding? Does he still want it badly enough?
People have watched Eric Dickerson the past couple of years with the Indianapolis Colts and wondered about his legs and his heart. Particularly, his heart.
"If there's anybody who questions that about me, I will have the answer for them this year," Dickerson says.
The Los Raiders were the only team left for him. The only place meant for him. "I didn't want to play for anybody else," Dickerson says.
It really was the other way around. Dickerson did want to play for the Washington Redskins, and he would have accepted a trade to the Atlanta Falcons.
Both teams passed; the Redskins for the intangible reasons, and the Falcons because they didn't think he was worth the money.
With permission from the Colts, Raiders boss Al Davis spent a lot of time on the telephone with Dickerson before the draft-day deal that brought the running back to Los Angeles. He convinced Dickerson that the "team" thing to do was to take a pay cut from his $2.2 million to $1.1 million, the base salary paid to Raiders veteran Marcus Allen.
Dickerson accepted the cut, but his agent, Marvin Demoff, insisted on some easily attainable incentives that will increase his pay another $400,000.
It isn't about money anymore, Dickerson says.
"People have misjudged [me] about that," he says. "The most important thing I've learned in football is you have to play for a winner and you have to play for an organization that treats you right. The Raiders represent all the things I strive for. Right now, my goal is to play in a Super Bowl."
Back to Dickerson's legs and heart. Last season, the Raiders signed Roger Craig, the former San Francisco 49ers great, in Plan B and discovered that he still had plenty of heart but that his legs didn't carry him nearly as quickly as they once did. They let Craig go in the off-season.
In the past two seasons with the Colts, Dickerson's legs carried him nowhere. In 1991, he recorded just 536 yards in 167 carries and two touchdowns. The season before, he collected 677 yards in 166 attempts and four touchdowns. This from a man who, at one time, seemed certain to surpass Walter Payton as the NFL's all-time leading rusher. Payton rushed for 16,726 yards in his career, and Dickerson's career total of 12,439 puts him in third place behind Tony Dorsett (12,739).
"But what you see in the films is that he still has his legs," says Steve Ortmayer, the Raiders' director of football operations.
The Raiders didn't think Dickerson should be judged on last season's production because of the Colts' poor offensive line.
The heart was never questioned more than last season when Dickerson was accused of quitting in a practice session and was suspended by the Colts. Dickerson disputed the facts and more or less settled the case without admitting guilt. But the publicity was another slam against his heart.
"We don't question that whatsoever about Eric," Ortmayer says.
Dickerson's impact on the Raiders? It is foolish to suggest his presence fouls up the chemistry with Allen. This is nothing new for Allen, who has been at odds with Davis for several years now. Remember, first came Bo Jackson, then Craig, now Dickerson.
Allen and Dickerson are different backs. Allen blocks and catches. Dickerson is a pure runner. He may no longer possess 4.3 speed in the 40-yard --, but the Raiders believe he is fast enough to bounce around the end for a long one.
No, what the Raiders must determine is how much Dickerson may impede the progress of second-year back Nick Bell, a 250-pounder with speed who showed promise last season with 307 yards rushing. Bell was prone to injury, though, and he will have to earn his time in the backfield.
When Dickerson is set deep in the I-formation, the Raiders want opposing defenses to focus on No. 29. Then they want No. 29 to prove that he not only has some legs left in his game, but that is heart is sound, too. It's a pretty fair bet that Dickerson still has enough left to show why he is headed to the Hall of Fame.