Please don’t look at the potential regular season holdouts of running backs Ezekiel Elliot of the Dallas Cowboys and Melvin Gordon of the San Diego Chargers as “just another selfish play by an overpaid athlete.”
It’s much more than that. Their looming demonstrations of patience and resoluteness are active protests to a broken collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) from 2011 that doomed their position for the last eight years.
Every position on the field was affected when the 2011 CBA, agreed to only after a 132-day lockout imposed by the league, set a rigid rookie pay scale. Meant to combat the poor financial investments of recent highly-touted prospects – I’m looking at you, JaMarcus Russell – the new CBA made it so NFL teams would no longer be strapped to bad players signed to undeserving superstar contracts.
This had to be especially difficult for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who was drafted in 2011 with the new CBA in place. You may laugh at the idea that the No. 1 overall pick’s four-year, $22 million rookie contract was grossly undervalued, but consider 2010 top pick Sam Bradford’s rookie contract – six years, $78 million with $50 million guaranteed.
Bradford has never been named to the Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team. He’s never won MVP or been to a Super Bowl. Newton has been and done all of those, plus more.
More importantly, though, the 2011 CBA allowed NFL teams to score cheap contracts for talented rookies until the time came when they could sign new, talent-appropriate deals. However, that hasn’t worked out as planned for running backs, whose longevity is among the shortest position-wise in the NFL.
Young running backs have been all the rage of late. They’re younger, faster and more easily able to bounce back from injury. Take a look at last year’s top rushers: Elliot (1,434 yards), Saquon Barkley (1,307), Todd Gurley (1,251), Joe Mixon (1,168), Chris Carson (1,151), Christian McCaffrey (1,098), Derrick Henry (1,059), Adrian Peterson (1,042), Phillip Lindsay (1,037) and Nick Chubb (996).
Other than 34-year-old Peterson and recently re-signed Gurley (four years, $57.5 million), every single one of those guys are playing on their rookie contracts. It’s how the NFL works today. Teams draft a running back, grind them into the dirt with crazy usage rates and then dump them for the next draft prospect before they have to pay them what they’re worth.
It used to be in the NFL, players get paid for what they’re going to do while in the MLB and NBA, they get paid for what they have already done. The best running backs in this league now get neither.
Le’Veon Bell was the first to draw the line last year. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ second-round pick from 2013 has been the league’s leading rusher since he came into the league, all the while playing on a putrid four-year, $4.12 million contract. The Steelers franchise tagged Bell twice, paying him handsomely but only on a year-to-year basis. That didn’t fly for Bell, who plays a position known for sustaining injuries.
So, Bell sat out the entire 2018 season. He had a lot of naysayers. People wondered why he didn’t take the rumored $70 million offer from the Steelers with $10 million guaranteed. Probably because of Gurley’s $60 million contract with $45 million guaranteed. He gave up $14 million by sitting out last year, a staggering number for a player still in his prime. When the dust settled, Pittsburgh cut him loose and the 27-year-old signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with $35 million guaranteed.
Did Bell accomplish anything? It’s hard to know. He wound up signing a contract below his value, while the Steelers continued the league’s trend by handing the lion’s share of carries to James Conner, currently playing on a rookie contract worth $3.16 million over four years.
Whatever the consensus on Bell, Elliot and Gordon, they have also decided they are worth more than the negotiating table is offering. Will they eventually get the contracts they feel they deserve, or will they join Bell in the ultimate form of protest and simply not play this season?
Either way, both players have earned their money. Whether or not they actually get it is an entirely different question.
The league’s rushing output has clearly been affect by the 2011 CBA. The year it was established, NFL teams were rushing for an average 117.1 yards per game. That number continuously dropped until 2015 when it hit a 21st-century low of 108.8 yards per game. Since that season, however, the numbers have climbed all the way to 114.5 yards per game last season.
Part of that is the ever-evolving offensive looks in the league. Another is the incredibly deep 2017 NFL Draft, which featured over a dozen future stars at running back. They included Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Chris Carson, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, D’Onta Foreman, Aaron Jones, Tarik Cohen, Conner and the Carolina Panthers’ own Christian McCaffrey.
Interestingly, if each of their teams exercises a fifth-year option on their rookie contracts (which most do for a talented player), then these running backs will all be looking for new contracts in 2021, the year of the next CBA.
If the running back quandary isn’t addressed, how will these young players respond? Just how long will “C-Mac” be a Carolina Panther?
(Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @zacknally)