The Short, Unfair Life of the NFL Running Back

One of the big offseason stories has been the Chris Johnson holdout in Tennessee.  Johnson has been one of the top five running backs in the league since he came into the league in 2008, and has a 2,000 yard season under his belt.  Yet, he’s getting a paltry (by NFL standards) $600,000 this coming season, while the Bucs signed a kicker for six years and $19 million.  Johnson feels as if he’s getting the shaft so he’s doing the only thing he can do: go on strike to force his employer’s hand.  But his gamble is not likely to be successful, because he plays the most unfair position in the game.  No one on the field gets hit as much as running backs do;on every offensive play they are running with the ball (and getting hit), catching a pass (and getting hit), or blocking for someone else (and suffering some major head-to-head contact).  And yet they often get paid as if they do next to nothing out there.  Why is that?  Here’s what I think:

They don’t age well

Here are a few running backs of recent vintage who were considered the best in the game.  What I have listed are the before and after numbers at their point of decline and the age at which the decline started.  These are guys who did not suffer from serious knee or leg injuries and who didn’t have to quit early due to concussions.  They also aren’t guys who went from a good team to a bad one and suffered as a result, like Edgerrin James.  These guys were great one year, then not as great the next year.

  • Clinton Portis – 1,487 yards and a 4.3 average at age 27; 494 yards and a 4.0 average at age 28
  • LaDanian Tomlinson – 1,474 yards and a 4.7 average at age 28; 1,110 yards and a 3.8 average at age 29
  • Willie Parker – 1,316 yards/4.1 average at age 27, 791 yards/3.8 average at age 28
  • Shaun Alexander – 1,880 yards/ 5.1 average at age 28, 896 yards/3.6 average at age 29
  • Thurman Thomas – 1,487 yards/4.7 average at age 26; 1,315 yards/3.7 average at age 27
  • Marshall Faulk – 1,382 yards/5.3 average at age 28; 953 yards/4.5 average at age 29
  • Eddie George – 1,509 yards/3.7 average at age 27; 939 yards/3.0 average at age 28

Now some of these guys had productive years after they hit their point of decline, but none returned to the form they showed in the year before.  Now look at the ages when they hit this point: 27 to 29.  Thurman Thomas peaked at 26 years old. Now there are exceptions to this, like Curtis Martin and Ricky Watters, two guys who carried the load past the age of 30 in fine fashion.  And if they get in the league early enough, they can deliver seven or eight years of great production.  But every other position ages a lot better.  Top notch wide receivers can go until 32 or 33 until their permanent decline starts, quarterbacks until 35 or 36.  To be blunt, running backs don’t have as long until their teams can justifiably want to move on.  You don’t see 37 year old running backs coming off surgery as possibly viable players like Terrell Owens is; in fact the only reason that a 36 year old back like Tiki Barber even has a shot is because he hasn’t played for four years!  Even top level, Hall of Fame caliber guys are often producing at an easily replaceable level before they it 30.  No other position suffers from that kind of quick drop off.

It is, and always has been, a quarterback’s league

A popular cliche among today’s sports media personalities is that the NFL is ‘a quarterback’s league now’.  Well news flash folks: it always has been!  We’ve had 45 Super Bowls won by 29 different quarterbacks.  Of that group 11 are already in the Hall of Fame, four more are sure to get in when they’re eligible (Brady, Peyton, Brees, Favre), another one will probably get in after some debate (Kurt Warner), and three more will probably get in if they keep things up (Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and Eli Manning).  That’s 19 out 29, or 65 percent.  On the other hand, 35 different running backs have been the leading rushers on Super Bowl winners and only eight of them are in the Hall of Fame.  Several Super Bowl winners split carries between backs, or won the Super Bowl with a different running back than the one they started the season with.  Quarterback play has shown itself to be more important than anything else on the offensive end.  And finally, 14 running backs have been drafted in the top five since 1989 vs. 27 quarterbacks even though 73 running backs were drafted in the first round vs. 52 quarterbacks.  So if a quarterback gets picked in the first round, half the time he will go in the top five.  Running backs picked in the first round only go top five one out of five times.  I think we can see who is considered more important.

Their market value has been correctly determined

It seems that the running back position has been correctly figured by front offices and coaching staffs, moreso than any other offensive position out there.  You can win the Super Bowl with a hodgepodge at running back or wide receiver, but not at quarterback.  The Redskins in 1988 decided to start Timmy Smith at running back, a guy who was no better than third on the depth chart all season, and he ran for over 200 yards on the way to a 42-10 victory.  No one would ever try plugging in their third string QB because they just had a feeling the week of the Super Bowl that it would work.  We also can look at the Denver Broncos under Mike Shanahan; Terrell Davis looked like a world beater until Orlandis Gary, Mike Anderson, and Tatum Bell were able to keep things up at the position after Davis went down due to injuries. Green Bay lost their Pro Bowl running back Ryan Grant in week one of this past season, and then proceeded to win the Super Bowl making it up as they went along at running back every week.

The consequences of these occurrences are clear now:  running backs get drafted later than they used to (14 running backs taken in the top five since 1989 as opposed to 27 quarterbacks, and only one in the last five years); the highest drafted running back in this years draft was Mark Ingram at 28, and he was the only one picked in the first round at all.  There is no mad rush to draft a running back high on the basis of one game like JaMarcus Russell, or a single season like Akili Smith.    There are also no sizable free agent contracts given out to running backs, the exception being guys re-signing with their own teams.  The last running back to sign for big free agent money was Rickey Watters in 1995.  The money just isn’t there for these guys in the open market, and they’re not getting picked high enough to get the really big bonus money either.  And it’s not their fault; it’s just that we all know now that they are largely interchangeable save for a handful of guys (and even they don’t automatically bring team success), and that they depreciate quickly.  To make a real world analogy, QBs are houses and RBs are cars, both in what tey do for you and the amount you’re willing to invest in them.


Chris Johnson is right to want more money; he’s a top performer at his position and has outplayed his $600,000 salary by a huge degree.  But he’s a victim of circumstance; he got drafted 24th so he got no huge bonus and he’s got two years left on his contract so he has little leverage.  And he plays a position that is behind the eight ball more than any other in sports.  Kickers get paid better for what they bring to the table and the risk they take than running backs, but there is zero chance of that changing.  Unless Johnson is willing to sit for the whole season the he’s screwed.

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