We live amidst a changing game.
As the memories of Super Bowl LVI fade into the mist, as most of us talk about the halftime show and the game’s final two minutes being the only thing worth watching, I am once again reminded that running backs are no longer important.
I take that back. Of course, they are. But for those of us who grew up watching Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, LaDanian Tomlinson, Marshall Faulk, Thurman Thomas, Curtis Martin and so many others, it bears note that the position is no longer of the utmost importance. I tread lightly as I say this for running the ball effectively is just as important as it has always been. It just doesn’t cost as much.
Recently retired quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees redefined the game and their respective offenses. They also made millions doing so. They all hold passing records that will take eons to be broken. The game is infinitely more aerial than it has ever been. Additionally, those three quarterbacks played into their forties.
Conversely, the career of the modern running backs is considerably shorter lived. In fact, they have the shortest shelf-life of any NFL position. They’re an important part of any team’s offense… but they’re not that important. Franchises no longer see the need to mortgage their future on tailbacks when the rigors that come with the position have become immeasurably more brutal. Backs these days can’t seem to stay on the field.
Look no further than Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley, to name only two. After taking the league by storm (1631 rushing yards in his rookie year), Ezekiel Elliott has yet to match that productivity. In his last two seasons, he barely compiled 1000 rushing yards (979 in 2020 and 1002 in 2021). His carries were down significantly as well. While a 1000-yard season is nothing to sneeze at, Zeke is a far cry from the every-down back we thought he’d become. Elliott now shares carries with Tony Pollard.
Similarly, Barkley had back-to-back, 1000-yard seasons his first two in the NFL. He got hurt his third year and rushed for 593 in last season, his fourth.
That’s not to say dominant (or perhaps luckier) running backs don’t still shoulder the workload. Derrick Henry is vital to the Titans offense. He was leading the league in rushing yards, wait for it, until he got hurt. The Colts’ Jonathan Taylor, still young, led the league in rushing and was an MVP candidate. Dalvin Cook continues to be a force in Minnesota and is as durable as any back there is. But even his carries were down this year. Pittsburgh boasts the young, tough Najee Harris but his staying healthy until he can sign his next big contract is against all odds.
I saw this chart not long after the Super Bowl and it prompted this post. Super Bowl winning teams don’t need top tier running backs or, at a minimum, they don’t need running backs to comprise the bulk of their salary cap. A quick look at this chart bears that out.
Not only is paying top dollar for running backs not a requirement for winning a Super Bowl, but it’s also a deterrent. Thirteen years is not an accident, it’s a trend.
If NFL franchises recognize they can have greater success underpaying players at the running back position, they are not about to invest such a hefty chunk of their change in one player (not the quarterback) to see them go down to injury and handcuff the franchise.
I turn to the 2012 draft when things turned foul, although it may very well have happened before that. That year, the Cleveland Browns selected Trent Richardson with the third pick in the draft. He played one full season for them.
No running backs were taken in the first round the following two years. After that, here are the earliest tailbacks selected.
Todd Gurley – selected 10th in 2015
Ezekiel Elliot – selected 4th in 2016
Leonard Fournette – selected 4th in 2017
Saquon Barkley – selected 2nd in 2018
Josh Jacobs – selected 24th in 2019
Clyde Edwards-Helaire – selected 32nd in 2020
Najee Harris – selected 24th in 2021
After six seasons in the NFL, two of which he led the league in touchdowns, Todd Gurley’s (27) career is all but over. We’ve already discussed the downward trends of Ezekiel Elliott (26) and Saquon Barkley (25). Leonard Fournette (27) is an outlier, picked up by Tampa once his career was thought over in Jacksonville. The jury is still out on Jacobs, Edwards-Helaire and Harris but they may want to start saving their money.
Even the bestial Derrick Henry, who at Alabama looked like he might redefine the position by simply running over people, was taken in the second round with the 45th pick. Teams were so skeptical of the durability of the position that every team passed on the opportunity to draft him. After rushing for over 2000 yards two years ago, he missed half this year with a broken bone in his foot.
It’s a quarterback-driven league. Quarterbacks have been taken with the first pick in six out of the last seven years. Meanwhile, we haven’t had a running back taken with the top pick since Ki-Jana Carter in 1995. Like so many others, his career barely lived up to that hype. With more and more running backs having shortened lifespans, Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing record is looking safer by the season.
Want further proof of the position’s diminished importance? Quarterbacks have 15 of the last 16 MVPs, the lone exception Adrian Peterson in 2012. In the 16 years prior to that, running backs won or shared the award seven times.
We are provided with daily reminders that the NFL is a business, run by business owners making business decisions. If they are provided with a model that shows them paying top dollar for highly drafted running backs in no way guarantees success in the face of an increasingly physical game, then why would they drive a brand new, high-end BMW off the lot and into a demolition derby?
The answer is… they wouldn’t.