It’s not exactly the stuff of “Norma Rae,” but NFL running backs are threatening to walk off the job. They’re demanding better wages and taking their issues to the public.
Let’s face it: they have a case. They have the shelf life of fruit and their position takes more hits than a Whac-a-Mole. If they don’t make their money early on, they never will. There’s just one big problem: Their teams have a case, too. Running backs are no longer as essential to winning championships as they once were in today’s game, and their short shelf life makes long-term deals a bad investment. They are viewed as replaceable. Teams would rather spend their money on other positions.
Four of the best running backs in the league — Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard and Austin Ekeler — pursued lucrative, long-term extensions from their expiring contracts, and they were denied. Barkley, Jacobs and Pollard were given the franchise tag, a one-year arrangement that binds them to their current team at a fixed rate (in this case, $10.1 million), which might be less than they might have (once) commanded on the open market (but these days, probably not). Barkley and the Giants agreed to augment the franchise tag by adding nearly $900,000 in incentives, but it remains a one-year deal and not the long-term deal the running back was seeking).
Running backs are closing ranks and speaking out. Several of the NFL’s top running backs participated in a Zoom call Saturday to discuss their situation — reportedly, Nick Chubb, Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey, Barkley and Ekeler.
“We’re the only position that our production hurts us the most,” Chubb told ESPN. “If we go out there and run 2,000 yards with so many carries, the next year they’re going to say, you’re probably worn down. It’s tough. ... It hurts us at the end of the day.”
“I’m with every RB that’s fighting to get what they deserve,” Henry tweeted last week. McCaffrey tweeted, “This is Criminal. Three of the best PLAYERS in the entire league, regardless of position.”
Ekeler, who has scored a league-leading 38 touchdowns the last two seasons, was also denied a long-term deal as he enters the final year of his contract. The Chargers avoided a holdout by adding $1.75 million in incentives to his contract for the upcoming season (much as the Giants did for Barkley), but Ekeler is not happy.
“I’m so underpaid right now as far as my contract and what I contribute to the team,” Ekeler told the Orange County Register. “ … I want to get something long-term done. I want a team that wants me long-term. Because I’m at the peak of my game, right? … I’m getting half my value of what I could be getting.”
At least he’s employed. Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 5,000 yards and 43 touchdowns over the last four seasons, was simply cut by the Vikings to save salary cap money. Like so many other teams, they believe that he can be replaced and that there are better ways to spend money than on a 28-year-old running back, even a productive one. Cook has been shopping for a new team for six weeks.
Ezekiel Elliott, a former superstar who faded fast, and Kareem Hunt have also been cut by their teams and still haven’t found a job with another team. Both players are 27 and their best days are already behind them.
The net result: CBS reported that running backs with contracts averaging $12 million per year or more have been cut in half thanks to releases and pay cuts. CBS also noted that none of the contracts for running backs this year “hit the $7 million per mark.”
Running backs, the constant targets of hits from the defense, have the shortest lifespan of any position in the game — 2.57 years. They tend to have their peak years somewhere between 25 and 27 years old — which is about when their rookie contracts expire (probably not a coincidence). Running backs use this to justify the need for higher pay, but their teams use the same argument to pay them less.
Star players at other positions can cash in at that point, but not running backs. They are no longer valued as they once were. They’ve fallen out of favor, like dad jeans and Jerry Springer. For a running back, a franchise tag is worth about $10.1 million. Meanwhile, top quarterbacks are paid $40-$50 million and top wide receivers are making more than $20 million per year to play less hazardous positions that allow them to play (and earn paychecks) longer.
“I’ve been pretty vocal about this just because it’s not good for our running back market,” Ekeler told CBS. “It’s putting a ceiling on (salaries); there are no new contracts being made; there are no new comparables that are actually relevant because there’s been a set number set on guys. … So really who we want answers from is the ownership. Like, why are you doing this? What’s the reasoning?”
He might not like their answer. Running backs aren’t worth the big money now that the league has fully embraced the passing game. Patriots coach Bill Belichick never put much value on them; running backs were always interchangeable parts during the Patriots’ glory days.
Belichick spent his money on defense and a quarterback. Other teams have followed his lead. A single running back rarely gets 20-25 carries a game, as he might have in another era; almost all teams are using a committee of running backs who are relatively cheap. In many cases, one running back is as good as another. Henry led the league with 349 carries last season — 22 per game — followed by Jacobs, with 20. No one else averaged more than 17.
Until about a decade ago, running backs were a key part of championship teams. From 1994 to 2016, 14 of 21 Super Bowl champions featured a 1,000-yard rusher. Things have changed since then. Only one of the last nine Super Bowl champions had a running back rush for more than 1,000 yards during the regular season (and 1,000 yards is a modest benchmark, considering that the league has increased the number of regular-season games from 14 to 16 and now 17).
Elliott offers a good case study — and a cautionary tale: he rushed for 5,405 yards during his first four years in the league (56 games), or an average of 96.5 yards per game; he rushed for 2,857 yards the last three seasons (47 games) and averaged 60.7 yards per game. His yards-per-carry fell from 5.1 as a rookie in 2016 to 3.8 in 2022.
In the fall of 2019 — shortly before Elliott’s fourth season — the Cowboys (really owner Jerry Jones) caved in to the running back’s demands and holdout threats and foolishly awarded him a six-year, $90 million contract extension, meaning they committed $103 million over eight years (counting his existing contract at the time). After five more seasons he was released, and he has been in decline for the last four. The Cowboys had only two playoff wins during the seven years Elliott was in the backfield.
Ekeler and friends should probably revisit another cautionary tale. Le’Veon Bell was probably the NFL’s best running back during his five seasons with the Steelers when he elected to hold out during the 2018 season, thus giving up a $14 million salary. He was 26 and on top of his game.
After sitting out the 2018 season, he signed a four-year contract with the Jets that paid an average salary of $13 million (but guaranteed $27 million overall). He did not play well and the Jets let him go. He bounced around the league for a couple of years and hasn’t played since 2021.