In July, Cleveland Browns star running back Nick Chubb spoke with a few fellow prominent members of NFL backfields on a Zoom call about how league front offices are devaluing their position. Oft-injured and just generally beaten up by the incredible rigors of today’s pro football game — where the athletes on the field are bigger, stronger and faster than ever — NFL running backs are a tricky proposition to compensate. They age quickly, so the best ones are typically most productive when they’re young. But being new to the league also means they’re unproven commodities, so one way or the other it’s the teams that appear to hold leverage, and the players believe general managers have taken advantage of them with lowball offers. What hurts the running back’s cause from a financial perspective, too, is the NFL is home to non-guaranteed contracts.
All this is why Chubb told the Associated Press after the Zoom call that NFL running backs are “handcuffed” by the situation. “Our production hurts us the most,” he said. “If we go out there and run for 2,000 yards with so many carries, the next year they’re going to say you’re probably worn down. That’s the biggest thing that I took from [the call]. It’s just tough. It hurts us just to go out there and do good. It hurts us at the end of the day.”
On the subject of a career-threatening injury, Chubb, whose contract runs through 2024 without guaranteed money for this season or next, also added in the offseason: “Next year it could be me.”
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Unfortunately for him, that turned out to be a spot-on prediction. Last night on Monday Night Football, Chubb suffered what is being called a “very significant” and season-ending knee injury by the Browns, one that was so gruesome ESPN would not replay it.
Though it’s only Week 2 of the NFL season, three teams have now lost prolific running backs to injury, including Austin Ekeler of the Los Angeles Chargers and Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants, who was also on the summer Zoom call with Chubb and tore his ACL in an early 2020 game. Jonathan Taylor, currently of the Indianapolis Colts, has yet to appear in a game because of injury, though he’d also sought out a better pay day via contract extension during the offseason. When that demand wasn’t met, he asked for a trade. After logging more than 1,800 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns in 2021 before an injury-shortened 2022 campaign, the Colts have clearly missed his productivity this year, to say the least.
One can argue that this recent spate of injuries to the NFL’s top running backs supports the idea that those who play the position should be financially better taken care of and sooner. When they can best deliver for a team, before inevitably breaking down (sometimes very suddenly), perhaps they should be paid accordingly. But on the flip side, seeing these players get hurt in such quick succession also points out the economic risk that teams incur when dishing out big contracts to running backs (or, really, any athlete who plays such a brutal sport like that of the NFL). Fans might like the idea of seeing their team’s tailback get rewarded for running so hard toward victory, and rightfully so. However, they might like it less when the player’s productivity quickly dwindles, or they can’t play at all, and the front office can’t fill the void because they too are handcuffed by the salary cap.
It’s a complicated issue with no immediate answers, spawned by a longstanding agreement between the players’ union and the league that contracts do not have to be guaranteed and, in the case of the running backs, made more problematic by an evolving NFL that’s become pass-happy.
But, hey, at least Deshaun Watson, a quarterback who was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct for which he served an 11-game NFL suspension, will get all of his money — ironically from the same Cleveland Browns who employ Nick Chubb.