Running back salaries reflect NFL’s pass-first direction
Published 7:40 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2023
The Associated Press
NFL teams are refusing to give running backs lucrative long-term contracts, leaving the best players at the position feeling angry and underappreciated.
It’s no surprise the league has reached this point, considering recent trends.
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The days of “three yards and a cloud of dust” are long gone. The NFL has become a pass-first, quarterback-driven league built around explosive offenses.
League rules have changed over the past two decades to enhance scoring. QBs have more protection. Wide receivers have more freedom to roam the field. Defensive players have to be concerned about getting penalized for illegal hits. They can’t go too low. They can’t hit the helmet. They can’t hold. They can’t tug jerseys.
The result has been staggering offensive numbers for quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends. Running backs — despite their overall value, versatility and responsibilities — are getting left behind.
Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard have to play the 2023 season under the franchise tag-mandated $10.1 million salary after failing to agree with their teams on multiyear contracts before Monday’s deadline.
Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry wrote on Twitter: “At this point, just take the RB position out the game then. The ones that want to be great & work as hard as they can to give their all to an organization, just seems like it don’t even matter. I’m with every RB that’s fighting to get what they deserve.”
Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler said: “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.”
Barkley watched the New York Giants give QB Daniel Jones a $160 million, four-year contract after a season in which he threw 15 touchdown passes. Yet Barkley is making a fraction of that total after carrying the offense to the playoffs last season.
“It is what it is,” Barkley tweeted as players expressed their frustration on social media.
NFL offenses used to revolve around running backs from Jim Brown and Jim Taylor to Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith. Brown, Taylor, Smith and Payton helped lead their teams to nine championships.
Now, teams are winning Super Bowls without a dominant runner. Only three Super Bowl champions in the last 15 years had a 1,000-yard rusher in the regular season compared with 11 in the 15 seasons before that.
Phenomenal QBs like Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes are a big reason why teams aren’t as dependent on running backs.
Mahomes has led the Kansas City Chiefs to two Super Bowl titles in the past four years with Isiah Pacheco, a seventh-round pick, and Damien Williams, an undrafted free agent, as the main backs.
Brady once won a Super Bowl when Shane Vereen led the New England Patriots with 391 yards rushing in 2013. Brady and the 2016 Patriots were also the last team to win a championship with a 1,000-yard rusher. LeGarrette Blount, in his second stint with the team after being released, ran for 1,161 yards that season.
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks had Marshawn Lynch, who was acquired in a trade with Buffalo. The 2012 Baltimore Ravens had Ray Rice.
Overall, 30 Super Bowl champions had 1,000-yard rushers during the season. The undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins were the first Super Bowl champion with a 1,000-yard rusher and they had two — Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris.
Over the next 20 seasons, excluding strike-shortened 1981, 16 Super Bowl champions had 1,000-yard rushers, including Franco Harris, John Riggins and Marcus Allen.
Even Joe Montana’s San Francisco had Roger Craig do it twice. John Elway and the Denver Broncos couldn’t win a Super Bowl until Terrell Davis came along.
Times have changed. More teams are having success with a rotation of backs like the Philadelphia Eagles last season.
Star backs like Henry and Christian McCaffrey got big second contracts. Barkley and Jacobs didn’t.
They deserve it, but teams hold all the leverage.