To All the Backs I Loved Before

Football is a brutal sport. With the average length of an NFL career somewhere between 3-6 years, most players have a very limited window to make their living before they’re either replaced, medically retired, or just kicked to the curb.

In the 2011 Stastista Research Department study of average NFL career lengths, the Running Back position was by far the most short lived, at an average length of just 2.57 years. LeVeon Bell set the precedent last year, holding out for an entire season before getting paid by the Jets this offseason. So is it really a surprise that Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon, are trying to get paid while they’re still producing? 

As of the 1st of September, Zeke and Gordon are still yet to report to their teams, locked into contract holdouts with seemingly no end in sight. They see Todd Gurley’s $57 million contract signed last year, and consequently feel deserving of their own mega deals after their elite on-field performance of recent years. In the professional running back line of work, this is their one opportunity to cash in on their elite talent before the inevitable, fast decline that seemingly strikes all running backs after 28 years of age. Not everybody can be like Frank Gore. 

Gordon and Elliott see Gurley’s massive pay day and believe that if they are on the same tier talent wise, they should be similarly remunerated. It’s hard to disagree with their logic, especially in Zeke’s case, as he is undoubtedly one of the most talented RB’s in the NFL right now. If I was just as good at my job, I too would be fighting for my right to equal remuneration, if not, job security at the bare minimum (and I’m not running into 350lb defensive linemen trying to break me in half). 

The Cowboys and Chargers see the massive investment the Rams put into Todd Gurley and how it all came apart at the worst time (right at the Superbowl). Now the Rams still have a massive contract with legitimate concerns over Gurley’s health and arthritic knee. It’s easy to picture Jerry Jones and Dean Spanos seeing all this and thinking, it’s just all too much risk. 

Running backs are, unfortunately, relatively replaceable. James Conner kept the Steelers in contention while Bell was jet skiing in Miami. Tony Pollard, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson can and will do the same for the Cowboys and Chargers if needed. None of them have Elliotts game breaking all round talent, or Gordon’s relentlessness at the goal line, but the question does come down to how much that is worth, both immediately and in the long term plan of their organisations? 

Looking larger, there’s no easy fix for this problem. It’s an unfortunate reality of just how football is played. Shannon Sharpe once said “Every Running Back only has X number of hits in them, then they’re done.” With at least 53 mouths to feed on a team, salary at RB is a high risk high reward luxury at a position that is relatively replaceable.