It’s time to win back equity — and dignity — for football’s backfield bruisers before a running back salary crisis consumes the league. Here’s how we do it.
Eventually, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs decided they’d had enough.
Denied the first and quite possibly most lucrative NFL free agency of their careers thanks to the New York Giants and Las Vegas Raiders respectively slapping them with the franchise tag, the two star running backs watched a July 15 deadline to sign a multiyear contract come and go with no deal in place. The moment was a grim snapshot of just how far the salary market for NFL running backs has fallen.
While Barkley has since agreed to a one-year deal, Jacobs remains in salary limbo and has refused to report to Vegas’s training camp. Taken together, the whole episode has quickly grown into the most fascinating-yet-agonizing topic in the NFL as the 2023 preseason approaches — and that’s why the Chargers’ Austin Ekeler convened a July 2023 Zoom call to discuss the burgeoning contractual crisis facing a position group routinely populated by several of football’s most athletic, exciting talents.
In addition to Ekeler, participants reportedly included Barkley, Jacobs, Nick Chubb (Browns), Derrick Henry (Titans), and Christian McCaffrey (49ers), a who’s-who of several of the game’s very best. We don’t know just yet exactly what the running backs discussed or whether they’re poised to propose some bold solutions to pull things back from the brink; in the meantime, we have a few ideas of our own regarding how these players, the NFL Players Association, and the league itself could ensure not just greater equity, but dignity at long last for a class of athletes once considered to represent the pinnacle of the sport.
Let’s build the NFL Running Backs Association.
How to Solve the NFL Running Back Salary Crisis
Form a special association directly affiliated with the NFLPA
No, not a union — they already have one of those and a schism makes things far worse — but how about a special trade association advocating for the interests and advancement of those whose trade happens to be carrying the ball out of the backfield?
The fact remains that while collective bargaining on behalf of all NFL players has produced major, lasting wins regarding compensation, benefits, and post-career support since the NFLPA’s founding in 1956, certain obstacles along the way have simply harmed running backs more adversely than members of other position groups by comparison, leaving the door open for Colts owner Jim Irsay to say what would have been unthinkable a generation ago about the man who led the NFL in rushing in 2021:
Well, that’s certainly something. Naturally, Taylor has requested a trade out of Indianapolis as he enters the fourth and final year of his rookie-scale deal worth a total of just $7.83 million.
Suffice it to say that we need a formal group to push back not just against the financial inequity, but the morally vacant rhetoric that can accompany it. Perhaps the July 22 conference call will be retroactively recognized one day as the Running Backs Association’s spiritual founding. Make Austin Ekeler the president. Who says no?
A dedicated set of programs to support and enrich RBs
Retired Pro Bowler Chris Johnson put it bluntly: “Change your position, play receiver. For real,” he said via The Boston Globe.
“If you’re thinking about playing running back, think twice. Unless you really, truly feel like God put you on this planet to run the ball, if you’re athletic enough to switch positions, I’d do so in a heartbeat,” the Ravens’ Melvin Gordon concurred to The Baltimore Banner on July 29.
“It’s tough right now. We’re just trying to show that we are as valuable as any other position,” Derrick Henry said on July 28. “They use us in commercials and all over the place. We just want our share.”
Yes, it sounds grim. But right on cue, there are some handy solutions players could tap into that respond directly to these ills.
One of the sneakier phenomena baked into the NIL monetization era in amateur athletics once the floodgates opened in July 2021 is group licensing, which is exactly what it sounds like — several athletes, potentially inclusive of the teams or institutions they represent, brokering their name, image, and/or likeness together as a package for use in a wide range of opportunities ranging from apparel and merchandise to collectibles, video games, and beyond.
The NFLPA already does this quite prolifically; the NFL Running Backs Association will develop its own branding and marks and pursue licensing opportunities more finely tailored to its members. Jackets! A Madden deluxe edition with an accompanying career mode! A running shoe collab! A recurring live event series every offseason with dedicated sponsorship! Ideally, these initiatives will benefit both active and retired players who carried the rock, too.
Don’t tell me you wouldn’t listen to a “Runners Only” podcast featuring backfield stars of past and present talking about life and the game of football like only they can. Episode 1: Alvin Kamara names all 66 guys drafted ahead of him from memory, Mercury Morris raps 72 bars in honor of his beloved undefeated Miami Dolphins Super Bowl team, an LA (Ekeler, Cam Akers) vs. Texas (Tony Pollard, Dameon Pierce) debate to settle In-N-Out In vs. Whataburger once and for all.
Folks, we’re going to make running backs cool again through visibility, empowerment, and personality.
And yes, that sound you’re hearing is cha-ching.
Franchise tag reform
An unavoidably critical component to anything that could be considered real, lasting progress? Burning the franchise tag in a bonfire.
This mechanism is blatantly anti-labor in that it provides teams the privilege of preventing an otherwise eligible player from entering free agency; the NBA, NHL, and MLB do provide teams with certain advantages to help them keep their own players, but don’t go as far as the tag, which is essentially a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
While the tag doesn’t provide the security of a multiyear deal, its apologists may be quick to argue that the actual salary number attached to it is quite healthy for certain position groups based on how it’s calculated: By averaging the top five salaries among players at that position over the past five years, adjusting for changes in the NFL salary cap. A quarterback tagged for 2023, for instance, would receive $32.416 million fully guaranteed. Running backs, however, clock in at just $10.091 million this season, the lowest salary number for a tagged player outside of kickers and punters — and less than rookies Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs are due to make despite not having a single professional carry to their names when they signed their rookie deals.
Here’s what we can do instead:
- Either (a) remove the tag’s positional designations entirely, (b) regroup offensive skill players together as a single bloc, or (c) scale a franchise tender’s value based on an individual player’s service time in the league
- Introduce an arbitration system similar to pre-free agency MLB players by which a player and his team propose separate salary numbers, with a final resolution determined in a hearing.
- Phase the tag out of existence over two or three years
- Eliminate the tag immediately
Either sign your upcoming free agents to an extension or let them walk, folks. Period.
If it takes some manner of special working group or subcommittee to help make that happen and deliver a fairer piece of the pie to the super-athletes who make such a bruising living running between the tackles, so be it.
After all, running backs are special players.
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