The NFL has a Running Back Problem

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Melvin Gordon’s agent made it public this past week that if the Los Angeles Chargers weren’t willing to give him a new contract before the season then the star running back wants to be traded. After a similar situation with Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, it is becoming clear the NFL has a running back problem that will not be easy to solve.

Professional football is a grueling sport. The shelf-life of the average NFL player is shockingly low and this is especially true for running backs. They touch the ball more often than anyone except the quarterback and take the most hits. According to careertrend.com, as of October 2018, the average NFL career was 3.33 years. Running backs had the shortest at 2.57 years. Running backs don’t have much time to capitalize on their talent or maximize their earning potential.

High risk, low reward

A strong case can be made that the running back position is behind only quarterback in offensive importance. They have the ball in their hands much more than any other skill position. The best running backs skew even higher as they usually account for a large majority of the carries. Even so, only three running backs are in the top 100 average salaries for this upcoming season. Compare that with 15 wide receivers and 19 quarterbacks and you begin to see why star running backs want better contracts. They are carrying a very large load for their team at bargain-bin prices.

A lack of leverage is the problem for the players. By the time their rookie contract expires they have racked up hundreds of touches (carries plus receptions) and all the wear and tear it brings. This leads to a sense of desperation for these stars because their prime earning years have a very tight window. Possibly the scariest thing of all for the player is the team’s ace-in-the-hole, the franchise tag.

A new use for the franchise tag

The franchise tag was created to give teams an advantage in retaining their star players when they were set to become unrestricted free-agents. The player receives one guaranteed year and the team receives the exclusive rights to negotiate a new deal with the player. If they don’t agree to a contract by the start of the season, the player’s salary is determined by averaging the salary of the top-5 players at their position. To dissuade teams from using it in consecutive years on the same player, the salary would need to increase by 120 percent in the second year and by 144 percent in the third year.

In recent years a new use for this tag has come to light. Teams can use the tag to retain a star player without the risk of a long-term contract. They may not have any intention to sign a player to a longer contract, as was arguably the case between Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers.

Le'Veon Bell runs the ball in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017.
Oct. 22, 2017 AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Standoff in Pittsburgh

Le’Veon Bell played the 2017 season under the franchise tag. He proceeded to rack up over 1900 total yards on a league-leading 406 touches. By all statistical measures, he had proven his worth as the main cog in the Steelers offense. In an interview with ESPN, Bell stated he would sit out the 2018 season if he was tagged again and even contemplate retirement. The Steelers didn’t budge. He was tagged again, and contract negotiations fell through. As the deadline to finalize a contract passed, Bell made the unprecedented decision to sit out what ended up being the entire season. He decided to forfeit an entire year’s worth of salary for the chance to become an unrestricted free agent in 2019.

The move paid off for Bell as he inked a four-year deal with the New York Jets. He will receive 52.5 million dollars with 27 million guaranteed. Other star running backs around the league surely took note. There is no doubt that it played a part in the recent statement from Melvin Gordon’s agent. Gordon wants a long-term deal and he wants it before the Chargers have a chance to use the franchise tag.

How can they prevent this situation in the future?

If things do not change in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players, we will continue to see the best running backs around the league making these statements. The players association will likely be aggressive in their efforts to secure a larger revenue share and more guaranteed contracts. These things will certainly help all players but will still leave running backs more vulnerable than the rest.

To truly prevent more holdouts and trade demands the franchise tag needs to be eliminated or restructured. Teams are now using it to keep their best players from earning more money in free agency. If it is not eliminated, the cost to teams needs to be increased dramatically. Force teams to pay the player at a higher rate along with an added salary cap penalty for the season. They need to see the tag as a fallback plan and not a tool to control star players.

It is good these issues are in the spotlight before the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2020 season. I think both sides can agree that such contract disputes create a bad image for the league, and everyone benefits when the best players are playing, not sitting out.

Written By: Chris Vere (@darkwingdunk)

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