Speaking on ESPN in the wake of three franchise-tagged running backs — Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard — failing to get long-term contracts before Monday’s deadline and other big-name NFL backs — Ezekiel Elliott, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Kareem Hunt and Melvin Gordon — remaining unsigned, former backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky got on his soapbox on ESPN and advocated for better treatment of players who carry the ball out of the backfield.
“The running back market is broken,” he opined. “And that is a massive issue that the NFL has to fix.”
There’s no question that the men who play running back in the NFL have it rougher than some of their colleagues. The pounding they take is dangerous and the risk for injury is high. Their careers, even compared to the short careers of their peers, are brief and epitomize life in the NFL: Not For Long.
Matt Miller, an ESPN draft analyst, summed up the way the position, at least in today’s pass-heavy league where only backs like Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara who are major threats in the passing game are truly valued and paid, is treated by the majority of teams and executives in the NFL.
“Been saying it for years: 1. Draft a RB 2. Play the RB…if he’s good…3. Franchise tag the RB ONE TIME…and then…1. Draft a RB…,” he tweeted.
Austin Ekeler, who has scored a dozen more touchdowns for the Chargers than any skill position player in the NFL over the last two seasons but settled for contract incentives after his request to be traded from Los Angeles was not honored because there was no market for the 28-year-old, responded on behalf of his running back brethren.
“This is the kind of trash that has artificially devalued one of the most important positions in the game,” he wrote. “Everyone knows it’s tough to win without a top RB and yet they act like we are discardable widgets. I support any RB doing whatever it takes to get his bag.”
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Other top NFL backs have posted similar messages on social media, and there is reportedly a group text chain where veteran players have been commiserating about the current market at the position and brainstorming strategies for improving the situation. “As of Monday, the plan of action was to complain about the situation on social media,” per ProFootballTalk. “Which some of them did. Ultimately, they need the league and the NFL Players Association to recognize the problem and to fix it.”
That’s not going to happen — and it shouldn’t.
Unfortunately for NFL running backs, who have an average salary of $1.81 million per season, the toothpaste is not going back in the tube. Backs may not be paid well compared to their peers or even what they are worth in comparison to their production, but they are making the amount that their role commands in the modern NFL.
When the Rams lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots to end the 2018 season, former Offensive Rookie of the Year (2015) and Offensive Player of the Year (2017) Todd Gurley, who had just signed a four-year, $57 million extension even though he had two years remaining on his rookie contract, carried the ball 10 times for 35 yards. A year later, he was cut by the team and by the end of 2020 he was out of the NFL completely. When the Rams went back to the Super Bowl and won it three seasons later, they did it with Cam Akers and Sony Michel in the backfield, neither of whom had received a prestigious NFL award — or a lucrative contract.
The last time a running back won MVP of the Super Bowl was more than 25 years ago when Terrell Davis led the Broncos to a win over the Packers with 30 carries for 157 yards and three touchdowns. The game has changed substantially since then and what running backs bring to the table isn’t as valuable. More importantly, it’s largely interchangeable. NFL teams, especially after seeing the Gurley blunder, have figured this out.
“It’s no different than kickers and punters. There are more good ones than the game needs. So, as a matter of basic NFL business, why not flip from an older and more expensive player to a younger and cheaper one?” according to PFT. “That’s the mindset. All players are interchangeable parts in a broader football machine. Some are more interchangeable than others. Running backs fall into that category.”
It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality. Don’t hate the system. Hate the popularity of the pass-heavy game. And if you want to be outraged about someone else’s paycheck, talk to a teacher or a social worker or an EMT.