NFL running backs are extremely frustrated with a depressed market that's keeping their wages down and making them more disposable. For several years the position has been seen as churn-and-burn proposition and the ability for teams to slap a franchise tag on someone to keep costs down while prolonging control is making things very tense. Several high-profile ball carriers have taken their cause to social media, fashioning themselves as eight-figure members of the proletariat fighting oppression. Some have suggested — and it's unclear if they're serious — that running backs should create their own union. For now, though, they're still at the bitching in a group text message stage of things.
One of the side effects of the woke mind virus that has affected everyone here on the TBL team is a proclivity to stand with millionaires against billionaires so we're not entirely unsympathetic to the cause. But there is that pesky issues of the salary cap and widespread parity that means every team has to figure out the best and most efficient way to spend resources. And outside of the sense of general fairness one might wish to see for athletes who have short careers to earn and face a revolving door to the injured list, there aren't that many strong, winning arguments to be made for why running backs should be getting juicier contracts — even if the franchise tag loophole is unseemly.
Ryen Russillo, as he tends to do, injected some sense into this whole debate for those ready to abandon their posts and march in the streets in support of Saquon Barkley.
"There's two things working against running backs," he said during his opening monologue. "Reality and evolution." Passing has undeniably become more valuable in the NFL. It took everyone too long to realize that putting more athletes out in more space was the way to go. Just like in the NBA everyone realized they should have been shooting more three-pointers.
What's happening to to running backs right now is part of sports. Not a great part, but an unavoidable one. Back-to-the-basket power forwards aren't only less important, they're almost nonexistent. Slick-fielding shortstops who hit .240 and blast two or three homers per season aren't getting paid because they're at the end of the roster, if on one at all. Sports are constantly evolving and different skill sets rise and fall based on those trends.
One need not look outside of football. Remember the fullback, once an integral part of NFL offenses? Russillo co-opted that awful keep that same energy ethos and energetically explained that the position closest in proximity to the running back is going extinct and some of our beefy ball-carriers are being forced to learn how to code. Where were the running back tweets when their backfield brethren were being squeezed out?
Russillo conceded the point that running backs have the shortest career expectancy of any position at 2.5 years. "Do you want to know what the average expectancy of a wide receiver's career is?" he asked. "Two point eight years. No one says shit about the receivers." Digging deeper on these numbers, they leave a bit to be desired because the average is dragged down by draft picks who never get a chance, suggesting a bleaker environment for success than the one that actually exists for players who would, in theory, be rewarded with a lucrative second contract.
One of the major factors here is the massive turnover that comes through the draft and free agency. There's a tremendous amount of competition for any roster position and mixing-and-matching has become preferable outside of at quarterback, where the drop-off is most noticeable. That's going to be pretty difficult to set to the side because, and it must be stressed here, every team is looking for a competitive advantage and smartest way to spend its money.
Is any of this fair? Maybe not. One need not need a Grinch-hearing-the-songs-of-Whoville heart to believe running backs deserve better. But this is absolutely not anything new. It's not an outlier. This happens everywhere all the time. Running backs are just the latest group to feel the burn of professional sports' ruthlessness. This franchise tag business is borderline loathsome and you'd be right to hate it unless it helps your team.
Russillo's podcast is essential because he has what's become a rare ability to synthesize all the information and provide a clearly stated thesis with more context than someone trying to go viral or take the easiest imaginable stance. He doesn't intentionally zig when others zag, he comes to that plan organically through research and isn't afraid to share some hard, unpleasant truths.
Many times his product can't be easily mined for zesty social videos and even in writing this post, we found ourselves challenged to succinctly summarize what he had to say. And to be clear: that's great. It elevates the discourse by making it more robust and informed. It's invaluable to still have someone willing to do this and have the space to do it.