The decline of the ballcarrier
By Eric Wilkins, Sports Editor
The NFL is increasingly becoming a passing league—few will dispute that. The years of 4,000 yards passing being a milestone for quarterbacks are over. With this shift the roles of certain positions have changed. Tight ends, for example, are used far more often in the passing game than they used to be. The position most heavily influenced by the change though, especially financially, is running back.
Running backs will always be the bread and butter of the NFL, but they’re becoming devalued. It’s not as if a good back can be plucked off the street à la Mike Shanahan all the time now, but teams are refusing to pay the massive sums the position has become accustomed to receiving. Ben Tate, who many have been waiting for ages to get out of Houston and land his own starting gig, signed a two-year, $6.2-million deal in his free agent debut. Toby Gerhart, a more intriguing option emerging from Adrian Peterson’s shadow, got $10.5 million over three years. Knowshon Moreno, who’s coming off a season where he had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage, received a paltry one-year, $3-million contract. And, albeit he’s near washed-up, Maurice Jones-Drew got $7.5 million over three years. All of these backs are starting-calibre players but they’re making a fraction of what the position used to make.
Here’s some more names: Sebastian Janikowski, Robbie Gould, Josh Scobee, Stephen Gostkowski, Connor Barth, Matt Prater, Dan Bailey, Graham Gano, Phil Dawson, and Nick Folk. What do they all have in common? For starters, they’re all kickers. More importantly though, each one averages over $3 million a season. In other words, these kickers make roughly the same as some starting running backs. If one were to say a decade ago that a kicker, let alone a number of them, were making as much as a starting ballcarrier, you’d have been laughed out of the room. Now it’s a frightening reality.
Part of the reason for the decline of running backs can be traced to the college level. The NFL, as everyone knows, is a copycat league. If one team is doing something and finding success with it, it won’t be long until someone else tries it. The trick though is that the NFL takes a number of cues from college teams. Many teams in college employ spread offences and operate out of the shotgun constantly; the system works well for quarterbacks inflating their stats. Due to many colleges employing this system, running backs aren’t given as much of a chance to shine. If poor Billy isn’t getting the workload to get that 1,000-yard season, how are teams going to know how good he is? As a result, in this year’s NFL draft, there isn’t a single back expected to go in the first round, and some would argue there isn’t one in the second either.
Along with that college-related note, many teams have been sharing the workload a great deal more than before. One back will still get the lion’s share of the carries in most cases, but his backups will see more of the ball than their predecessors did. The shift to a running-back-by-committee approach has eased the need for one star. Also of note is that in a pass-heavy system, a bell-cow back isn’t as necessary, and having the versatility to release out of the backfield a display of soft hands is a trait coaches and GMs increasingly look out for.
At the end of the day, the NFL goes through phases. Running backs won’t be on the back burner forever; they will have their heyday again. For now, however, ballcarriers will have to adjust their financial expectations.