Money. It’s about money. Running backs want it. Some of them do more than enough to earn it - looking at you, Jonathan Taylor. But the NFL operates under a salary cap system. The system's limits put general managers in a challenging position as they manage their team’s annual budget.
It has become common for owners and general managers to use the money at other positions, allowing running backs to leave for other teams, franchise tagging to reduce cost, or offering less than they would for players at other positions. There is a football reason for this, a strategic one, but let’s focus on the money.
ROOKIE WAGE SCALE - COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT
The introduction of rookie wage scales by the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) in 2011 significantly changed how rookie players are compensated. The wage scale was intended to limit exorbitant contracts for unproven players coming out of college.
- This benefits owners, as it reduces their risk for a group of players who frequently bust.
- This benefits veteran players who didn’t want limited access to contract money because teams were on the hook for rookies who failed to make it in the league.
An unintended and likely overlooked side effect of this negotiated feature of the Collective Bargaining Agreement is how this system has a pronounced impact on running backs.
1. Shorter Career Span: Running backs typically have shorter NFL careers than other positions. The physical toll of being hit almost every play and the frequency of carries in games means running backs are at a higher risk of injury. This wear and tear often lead to a shorter playing tenure in the league.
2. Prime Years Early: Often, a running back’s prime years are in the first few seasons of their career. By the time they’re eligible for a second contract, they might have already peaked in terms of performance. With the rookie wage scale in place, these players earn a pre-determined salary during these crucial first few years, potentially limiting their earnings during their prime.
3. Delayed Big Payday: The rookie wage scale means running backs must wait until their second contract to secure a big payday potentially. Given the shorter career expectancy of the position, some players might never get to that second contract, or if they do, they might not command as high a price as they would have earlier in their careers.
4. Evolution of the NFL Game: With the modern NFL leaning more towards a passing-oriented game, the value placed on running backs has diminished. Teams are less willing to invest a significant portion of their salary cap in a position with a shorter shelf life and less central to their offensive scheme than in previous eras.
5. Replaceability: There’s a growing perception in the NFL that running backs are more easily replaceable than players in other positions. This belief is partly due to the influx of talented rookie running backs who perform at a high level right out of college, often at a fraction of the cost of a veteran player.
6. Running Back Committees: Running back committee approaches reduce the damage experienced by old school bell cow rushers and allow offenses to pressure defenses in multiple ways. With more than one primary rusher, contract dollars are often split between multiple players.
In essence, the rookie wage scale, combined with the nature of the running back position and its challenges, creates a unique set of financial constraints for players in this position.
Perhaps the best way to handle this is to review NFL contracts and the salary cap. Perhaps all contracts, rookie or otherwise, should have heavy performance-based compensation enhancers, which need not impact the salary cap. It seems like an equitable way to simplify general managers' lives under the cap, limit owner risk, and reduce the financial impact on running backs in their most productive years.
Regardless of the answer, the NFLPA and team owners must figure it out.
Jonathan Taylor, running backs, and agents need to get it together. Directing ire at franchises, owners, and general managers as the current collective bargaining agreement is written makes little sense. You would be better served looking back at your teammates and their representatives in the NFLPA who let you down. When the time comes, the problem needs to be fixed.