The NFL Running Back Problem: Enormous Physical Toll Just To Be Disposed

The news that several running backs couldn't escape their franchise tag has created a new discourse -- players that take a beating for little in return.

The news that Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, and Tony Pollard all could not reach long-term deals with their respective teams before the franchise tag deadline spurred a new round of discourse about running backs in the modern NFL.

July 17 was the last day that any player with the franchise tag could have signed a contract instead of signing their franchise tender. Pollard, who had signed his tender, is expected to participate in training camp and the regular season. Barkley and Jacobs have not signed their tenders and therefore are not under contract with their respective teams.

Though that doesn’t mean that they can sign with another team — that’s the point of a franchise tag — they are not subject to fines in training camp if they choose to sit out. According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, that’s exactly what the plan is for both running backs — to sit out camp.

Running Backs Are Getting Left Out

Neither Barkley nor Jacobs can secure a long-term deal by sitting out of camp, so their decision to abstain from team activities would largely be symbolic. The only opportunity for them to lose money would be if they started missing games, something that might be in play for Barkley, according to Ralph Vacchiano of Fox Sports.

This is reminiscent of a similar situation in 2018, when Le’Veon Bell refused to sign the franchise tender put forth by the Steelers, missing the 2018 season and hitting free agency for the 2019 league year. He signed a long-term deal with the New York Jets worth $52.5 million over four years, with $35 million guaranteed.

He only played out two years of the deal, plagued with injury problems and underperformance. He bounced around multiple teams, including the Chiefs, Ravens, and Buccaneers after that, but he did not live up to the level of play he put together with the Steelers.

The history of running backs on second contracts is bleak and something we’ve covered before. As of October 2022, 17 running backs signed second contracts since 2016 worth at least 4% of the cap at the year of signing. Only two of them produced more yards per game after signing that contract than before, and only four produced similar value to their precontract production for the teams that signed them.

Those four, incidentally, were Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Derrick Henry, and Nick Chubb. Cook is no longer with the Vikings, and Kamara has disappointed over the last two years.

Simply put, it does not make sense from a management perspective for teams to offer long-term contracts to running backs. Teams have an incentive to maximize wins, and they have an artificial constraint on the number of dollars they can spend. Given what their goals are, any money spent on a running back could be better spent on another position.

That’s why we saw running backs like Austin Ekeler and Henry express frustration at how the system has played out.

Running Backs Cannot Ignore the Reality of the Market

That’s the reality. In the same way that a grocery store has an incentive to replace cashiers with self-checkout lanes or an auto manufacturer has an incentive to replace an assembly line worker with a robot, a football team doesn’t have much time for loyalty or sentimentality. There is no reason to pay for what a player has done instead of what they will do.

The best example of this might be Alfred Morris, a sixth-round pick for the Washington Commanders in 2012. He won the starting job and, for the first three years of his career, generated 4,272 yards from scrimmage (89 yards per game).

Alfred Morris (46) carries the ball against the Chicago Bears during the first quarter at Soldier Field.

In that time, he ranked sixth among all running backs in yards per scrimmage, behind Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, and DeMarco Murray — ahead of Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, and Chris Johnson.

Morris, over an eight-year career, earned $8 million. By comparison, Quincy Enunwa (also a sixth-round pick) earned $25 million over a seven-year career. Enunwa never earned more than 1,000 yards in a season.

This isn’t to say Enunwa didn’t earn his contract — he suffered multiple season-ending injuries, including bulging discs in his neck, which are remarkably painful.

It instead demonstrates the stark contrast between how teams treat running backs vs. how they treat receivers. Because receivers have longer careers, it makes sense for teams to invest in the position, even with less production to project.

Complicating matters is the fact that running backs are more replaceable than other positions. It’s easier to find production in the middle or late rounds of the draft, and there’s a good deal of talent sitting out there in free agency. That makes it more difficult for running backs to advocate for themselves and secure long-term deals or guarantees.

That, in concert with the decreasing importance of the running game, has helped phase out the image of the star running back.

Running Backs Play a Largely Thankless Role

It’s difficult to argue that Enunwa provided three times as much value over his career compared to Morris. It could be the case that it would be easier to replace Morris than Enunwa, but the theoretical replaceability did not make the hits he took disappear.

Running backs like Morris take on the brunt of damage among NFL ball carriers. They run into the teeth of the defense, often playing a constraint role instead of as primary producers — that is, their job isn’t necessarily to create as many yards as possible but to prevent the defense from overcommitting to defending the pass.

In that way, it’s a thankless job. Someone has to take on the damage of running into nose tackles, and the fact that it’s easy to replace that runner doesn’t take away the sacrifice involved. The fact is, their role produces value, and that value won’t be realized in contract negotiations.

That led to the inevitable scenario with Jacobs and Barkley and was easy to identify as a potential locus for a cost-savings strategy years beforehand.

Contracts are simply not indexed to wear and tear or same-year production. There are some incentives in contract structures, but contracts are primarily built around an expectation of future value. Running backs have a low expectation of future value by the time they have the ability to actually negotiate a contract. Thus, they get shut out after taking on an enormous burden.

That’s the primary labor dynamic at play. There has been some discussion that there has been a concerted effort to diminish running backs specifically, but that doesn’t track. From a profit perspective, labor costs don’t change by diminishing running backs — that money gets distributed to receivers, tight ends, tackles, cornerbacks, and quarterbacks.

Running Backs Don’t Have It as Good as People Think

The nature of the salary cap — a true wage suppression mechanism — and the pressure to win games means that money will be spent on labor. How that gets distributed happens to deprioritize a position that takes on enormous fatigue.

The fact that this discussion erupted around running backs is particularly interesting, in part because they happen to be a high-profile position that simply doesn’t see pay commensurate to their workload.

We didn’t see the same discussion for fullbacks, and we don’t see the discussion now for centers — both positions that take on an enormous physical toll whose contract values don’t match that toll.

While it may be difficult to feel empathy for players earning millions of dollars — though the sticker price never matches the take-home pay — the fact is that this money is being made. It’s being distributed either to players or owners.

It’s a lot more difficult to sympathize with owners who don’t put their bodies on the line to produce the entertainment value of the NFL than it is with a running back who often suffers from a lifetime of chronic pain that cannot be resolved with NFL pension payments or the money left over from their professional careers.

Morris’ lifetime earnings, after accounting for taxation and agent fees, would be about $4.3 million. For a back like Morris, his post-retirement career prospects are extremely limited because he spent his life — including in college — maximizing his potential as a running back, meaning his post-NFL career earnings are likely limited.

If he earns $40,000 a year and earns the same inflation-adjusted salary for the next 20 years before chronic pain forces him to retire early, he would earn about twice as much as the average worker earning $40,000 a year for 40 years with inflation adjustments.

Many Americans deal with chronic pain and disability that they are forced to work through in addition to seeing their wages stagnate. Still, it does mean that someone like Morris isn’t as well-positioned as many people think after retirement.

He has other advantages, like the ability to put more money into savings or retirement plans, as well as an NFL pension. However, he will still deal with the threat of CTE and the non-CTE-related mental health effects of post-NFL life that can be extraordinarily damaging.

Running backs like Barkley and Jacobs put value on the field. They take on sacrifices to help produce wins. It may be the case that they do not produce substantially more wins than a replacement or a high-level receiver, but they take on a bigger cost than those higher-value players.

The market logic is simple and is playing out exactly like one would expect. Supply is high, and demand is relatively low. The negotiating dynamics reward projected future production and do not reward past production or provide any compensation for the physical toll.

The Running Back Problem Is Inescapable

Running backs have specialized in their position, and it would be asking too much to ask them to switch positions in order to maintain their longevity. And even for the few — if any — running backs who could become receivers, there would simply be a new class of running backs who take on the same role and wear.

There have been some discussions of running backs “forming their own labor union” separate from the NFLPA, which would likely not do much to change those dynamics. Even if running backs could prevent anyone from scabbing at the position — a more replaceable role than other positions — success in the board room might mean higher salaries for rookie backs or allocated to the position.

That initially might seem like a win, but just like with the rookie wage scale, it could create long-term effects that hurt the players who play the position. Teams would shy away from selecting high-cost running backs and take them later in the draft. They would find ways to get around contract requirements by implementing incentive-heavy contracts that penalize injury even more than they do now.

They could cycle through running backs throughout the season in order to avoid contract hits or designate wide receivers as running backs in order to get around position designations.

All of these loopholes might be anticipated and could have workarounds, but the problem remains the same: Market dynamics will make the running back expendable, and teams will find ways around them.

Instead, the market structure itself is the issue. And while running backs are unlikely to eliminate the free market, it might behoove the NFLPA to force a shift in how contracts are structured — to guarantee salaries for injury, reward players for usage, and accommodate wear and tear.

At the extreme, it would allow players to choose teams freely without having to spend much time negotiating contracts. Security would come from injury pay — which could ratchet up or down based on expected usage and production — and finding an ideal working environment.

It would require heavy usage of the likely-to-be-earned mechanism inside the CBA to determine salary caps or require the NFL to be much more aggressive about revenue sharing in order to prevent competitive advantages from building up in a world where the salary cap is less important. One could, for example, require that all revenue from teams be split evenly instead of just media revenue. And then those teams would be restricted to using that revenue to pay players.

Those are long-term solutions and incredibly unlikely, but that underscores the fundamental problem facing running backs. The problem is irresoluble in the current market environment. So the only solutions are either a radical re-imagining of the NFL contract system or small tweaks — like eliminating the franchise tag — that don’t get to the core of the issue.

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