Running Backs: Are They Worth It?

The NFL Draft is just around the corner, and front offices are making decisions they feel is best for their franchise. One of the most talked about positions lately has been Running Backs, not because of their talents, but more so of the value of their worth. There seems to be this odd conversation happening throughout the masses, claiming that paying a RB top dollar is not a smart investment. In history, that seems to hold true… to a point, as I believe you can literally say that about every position in the NFL. Football is a team sport, and you can’t win games with one guy. It takes the effort of every player on the roster, as well as solid coaching, in order for a team to win games. The fact of the matter is, the best players should be paid the most money, despite what position they play.

The Front Office is the Real Enemy

We’ve seen it time, and time again. A high profile player has a speculator season (or 2), then they sign a huge contract, giving them a ton of money, and they disappear. We’ve seen it happen with Running Backs… and Quarter Backs, Defensive Tackles, Corner Backs… I’d list more examples, but i’m sure if you’re reading this you know the name of most, if not, all of the positions on the field. The point is, it’s a gamble every time a team offers a big contract to a player. In fact, every acquisition a team makes is a gamble. When it comes to the NFL Draft, you better hope your front office knows how to accurately evaluate college players. Otherwise that team is going to be bad for some time. Just ask the 2009-2015 Tennessee Titans, or the Cleveland Browns every year. There is an art in evaluating talent, especially in the draft, and is the reason why the same teams are in the playoffs every season. But that evaluation continues throughout free agency, signing coaching staff, and even signing general managers. You literally never know if it was a good acquisition until a few years down the road (or however long their contract is).

First example, Jared Goff, the QB for the Los Angeles Rams, signed a 4-year $134 million deal. In 2019, Goff finished 5th in total passing yards, 4th in completion percentage, 15th in yards per attempt, 17th in touchdown passes, had the 4th most interceptions, and finished the year with a 48.5 QBR (23rd in the league). Even before his big pay day, Goff was mediocre at best as he was apart of a team that went to the super bowl, only to put on a lackluster performance. His 2019 stats show nothing more than that he threw the ball a lot. The Rams spent a ton of money on both their RB, and their QB. And when Gurley went down, their high paid QB couldn’t get the job done, as the Rams missed the playoffs entirely this past year. The rams have a good defense, a decent offensive line, and weapons for Goff to throw to. So why is so much blame being put on Todd Gurley? There is always a ton of finger pointing when things don’t go your way, especially after your team was so successful the year before. If anything, Goff is completely over rated, and the front office isn’t giving Sean McVay a chance to acquire top talent in the draft, after the front office dished away their 1st round picks in 2020 and 2021. Not only that, they officially cut Gurley after they couldn’t find a trade partner. Putting the Rams in a situation where they now need help offensively, and have weakened their chances of acquiring a prolific player in the draft for the next two years.

Okay, maybe you like defense more. Let’s go back to 2009. The Tennessee Titans just finished their 2008 season going 13-3. After earning the first seed in the AFC, they ultimately lost to the Baltimore Ravens that year in the playoffs (that game still haunts me to this day). The Titans defense that year was one of the best in the NFL, and was a HUGE part in helping them win 13 games that year. One of those guys was none other, than Albert Haynesworth. After finishing the year with a career high 8.5 sacks, and dominating the interior line all season long, the Titans opted not to re-sign him to the roster. Haynesworth was a monster for the Titans for 4 of the 7 years on the team, and clearly deserved some form of payment for his efforts. Additionally, he was 28 years old at the time, which meant he was entering his prime years as an athlete. Titans simply couldn’t afford him, so the Washington Redskins came in and scooped him up for a whopping seven year, $100 million dollar contract. Now, respectively, it’s commonly known that the prime years of an athlete are typically between the ages of 28-32. Which meant the Redskins signed him for longer than his prime. The result? Albert Haynesworth didn’t even play two full seasons. Costing the Redskins a ton of money. Since 2004, the Redskins have had 11 losing seasons. The best RB in Redskins history (arguably) is Clinton Portis, who was their star player from 2004-2008 (he started to decline at age 28). In 2004, Portis signed an 8-year $50.5 million deal, which at the time, made him the highest paid Running Back in the NFL. Now did the deal correlate to wins? Not really, but the Redskins also signed Haynsworth to a terrible contract in 2008, which didn’t help the team either. At the end of the day, it was Washington’s failure of a front office that doomed the team, as they acquired more bad players than good during that stretch.

Sometimes, It’s Just Bad Coaching

At the beginning of the 2019 season, we all watched Ezekiel Elliot holdout until the Dallas Cowboys offered him a monster six year contract worth up to $90 million dollars. By the time the deal expires, Zeke will be 31 years old. Clearly, he was paid for his accomplishments for his past work, however, the Cowboy’s franchise RB had a great season last year. After totaling 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns, Zeke finished within the top 5 in both categories. Additionally, like I stated previously, athletes prime years range from 28-32. Now, Running Backs seem to age faster than other players in the NFL, where they seem to start declining in their late 20s. In retrospect, signing Zeke for that length is what made this a bad deal. He’s 26 years old now, but considering how he’s played, it’s not crazy to think he can defeat the odds and keep playing at a high level until he’s 31 (Look at Adrian Peterson and Emmit Smith’s careers). However, The Cowboys were rather smart with their signing, as Zeke’s contract is back logged. He’s due most of his money in 2025 and 2026, (he’ll be 31 in 2026) which means if Zeke starts declining, the Cowboys can cut him and regain some money back. Now, despite Elliot’s efforts in 2019, the Cowboys missed out on the playoffs. But was it really at the fault of their star Running Back?

Dak Prescott was a good (not great) QB last season, The Cowboys notoriously have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, Amari Cooper showed once again that he’s one of the best WRs in the league, and the Cowboys defense finished with the 11th best defense in the NFL (Pro Football Reference). On paper, the ‘Boys looked like sure fire bets to make a super bowl run, and looked the part to start the season. But the fault of the Dallas Cowboys was their coaching staff. Jason Garrett had been the Cowboys head coach for 10 years before he was fired and replaced by Mike McCarthy after the 2019 season. I don’t know how many times it was discussed on ESPN, FoxSports1, Dallas sports bars, and by my friends, that Garrett was on the hot seat. There were countless moments where everyone thought he was going to be fired, only to stay on the team for another season. From the outside looking in, it always seemed like he didn’t have any control of the team, and was used as a puppet for Jerry Jones to control. Those are probably harsh words, but still, Garrett never really did a great job with the team, and last year, the Cowboys had a real chance to make some noise. We’ll see what the Cowboys can do with a new head coach, but I’d bet everything I have that Zeke has another freak year.

There Are Two Sides to Every Argument

Christian McCaffrey, Running Back of the Carolina Panthers, recently signed a 4-year $64 million deal, averaging $16 million per year. CMC is now the highest paid RB in NFL history as we head towards the 2020 season. The past couple days has brought up interesting debate on whether this was a good deal or not for the Panthers. It almost seems close to 50/50 where people think you should never give a Running Back that kind of payment, where the other half of people think CMC more than deserves the money. Let’s take a closer look and consider both sides of the argument.

As stated before, people argue that in history, it hasn’t worked out for teams who give a large quantity of money to a RB. But as I said before, you can say that for every position in football, not JUST Running Backs. The other argument is that people claim you don’t need a top dollar RB anymore to win games. It’s kind of true, as the San Fransisco 49ers finished in 2nd with the most rushing yards in the league. They played with a committee of players, each sharing reps, and each of them ran the ball particularly well. The offensive line is where the run game thrives, and the argument is that any RB can be great, as long as they have the blockers necessary. Makes sense, as 8 of the top 10 rushing teams have a good O-line. Football is a game that is fought in the trenches. Typically, the teams with the best offensive lines fair better than the teams that don’t. The same can be said on the defensive side of the ball. The 49ers spent a lot of high quality draft picks on the front lines of their team, both on offense and defense. This played a HUGE role in helping make their way to the super bowl last year. And really, who wouldn’t want a badass offensive and defensive line to bully the opponent every week?

Now, like I said, the argument makes sense, but there’s a reason why the 49ers lost to the Chiefs in the super bowl. The Chiefs were in a similar situation with their RB position. Just like the 49ers, the Chiefs had a group of under appreciated RBs, a top Tight End, and a stout defense. But the real key difference was the QB, and the other skills position players. The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, who seems to already be the next great player for years to come. He’s throwing the ball to arguably the best TE in the league, along with a WR core that was nearly impossible to guard. With guys like Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman, it was obvious the Chiefs just had too much for the 49ers to handle. Now it wasn’t like San Fran lacked in talent, as they had guys like George Kittle, Emmanual Sanders, and Deebo Samuel. But in comparison to the Chiefs, the 49ers just didn’t have enough fire power to beat the prolific offense Kansas City possessed. Considering Jimmy Garoppolo was only slightly above average all year, and the team relied so much on the run game, it was only a matter of time for the team to fall. But what if the 49ers had a guy like Christian McCaffrey? A player who posted over 1300 rushing yards along with over 1000 receiving yards in 2019? Rather than playing with a committee, it’s possible the 49ers could’ve won the super bowl had they had a better Running Back on their roster, considering how GOOD that O-line was. Their offensive line made Raheem Mostert look like an all star, and I never even heard of him until I put together my fantasy football lists in June last year. Could you imagine the damage a guy like McCaffrey could do running behind that O-line? The added weapon Garoppolo would have in the passing game? The Chiefs undeniably would have had to approach that game with a completely different strategy, and who knows, a high caliber player like CMC could have been the difference for the 49ers.

The Christian McCaffrey Affect

Now going back to Christian McCaffrey’s contract with the Panthers. He just signed a deal making him the highest paid Running Back in NFL history, surpassing Ezekiel Elliot’s contract that broke the record less than a year ago. A lot of people are caught up in the “don’t pay Running Backs that kind of money” argument, and using the 49ers as their main example. However, McCaffrey’s situation is different than most RBs we see in the league. Not only did McCaffrey rush for over 1300 yards, but he also had over 1000 receiving yards on the year. CMC finished 28th in total receiving yards, putting him ahead of some big name Wide Receivers like Devante Adams, Mike Williams, and Larry Fitzgerald. He was only 112 receiving yards behind Julian Edelman. Stats wise, CMC proved he is an elite RB1 in the league, and a solid WR2 simultaneously. He’s also the first and only player in NFL history to gain 2,500 rushing AND receiving yards in his first 3 years. Not only that, since 2017, CMC has 303 receptions, tying him with the 3rd most receptions in the ENTIRE LEAGUE (Michael Thomas 378, DeAndre Hopkins 315, Christian McCaffrey 303, Keenan Allen 303, Julio Jones 300). The guy is competing with the top WRs in the NFL and he doesn’t even play that position. He’s the ultimate dual threat RB, and he’s accomplishing more than we’ve ever seen before.

“But Running Backs age quicker than other players in the league, you said so yourself,” someone types in the twitter thread… Yes, it’s true. Most RBs in the NFL start declining once they hit their late 20s. LaDainian Tomlinson rushed over 1000 yards every year until he became 30. Clinton Portis was the same until he reached 29 years old. Then you have your freaks of nature like Frank Gore, who keeps competing for starting reps after being in the league for a hundred years. Even Emmitt Smith played until he was 35, and nearly rushed for 1000 yards in his final year. But let’s look at Christian McCaffrey. He’s currently 24 years old, and by the time his contract ends, he’ll be 28. The Panthers signed him long term during his prime years as a RB. And according to history, most NFL RBs start declining at 28 years of age. There’s reason to believe that CMC will continue playing at a high level throughout these next 4 years (as he’s done EVERY year of his career), making this a smart signing on the Panthers part. Sure, they’ll be taking a hit on their cap space this coming season. But in 2021, the Panthers have a group of players that will become free agents, retire, or be released, which should give the Panthers back enough money to make a splash in the future. The Carolina Panthers locked in their franchise player to build around for the next four years. That’s not something every team in the league can say.

Conclusion

The main point is, the best players in the league should be paid top dollar, despite whatever position they play. Sports are a performance based business. Meaning, in order to receive money, players have to perform at a high level in order to earn their contracts. Just like every job in the world, when a person is given a raise in pay, it’s based off what they have already accomplished, as well as what the company believes that person will accomplish in the future. The NFL works no differently, only that the player’s pay raises consists of a lot more money.

Additionally, giving someone that amount of money is a gamble every time. Especially in football, which is one of the most violent sports in the world. Guys are constantly hitting each other in every game, and there’s the head trauma issues the NFL has been dealing with for nearly the past decade now. But at the end of the day, what it really comes down to is smart decision making. A front office should look at their players from every angle when they consider giving him large contract. What’s his injury history in college/NFL? How many years has he performed at this high caliber level? Was last season his only good year? How much does our team depend on him for the future? etc. etc… Either way, if it’s a good fit and it makes sense to the franchise, teams should be paying RBs top dollar if they’ve proven they deserve it, and earned it.

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