In an age of the NFL dominated by the passing attacks of teams like the Broncos, Patriots and Saints, it’s easy to forget that there are other ways teams can win games. Stopping the run on defense is still a relevant goal and controlling the clock by moving the ball on the ground is still just as relevant on offense.
Largely because of the increased emphasis on the passing game over the past decade and a half, running backs are simply going out of style. There was a time in the NFL when it was common knowledge that you simply couldn’t be successful without a strong running game. Now, solid runners are a dime a dozen, and only the elite runners get big contracts.
Nothing has underscored that point better than this year’s opening days of free agency. Chris Johnson is tied up in Tennessee until the Titans either trade or cut him, and Maurice Jones-Drew is on the open market and has yet to draw much interest from anyone. Although Johnson has yet to be cut free from the Titans, there are no obvious landing spots for him, and it wasn’t that long ago that Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing yards.
Even teams that will be leaning heavily on a solid ground attack aren’t putting great value into running backs. The Jaguars, who let Jones-Drew walk, signed Toby Gerhart to a three-year, $10.5 million deal. Sure, Gerhart struggles a bit with fumbles (averaging about 1 every 50 carries), but Gerhart’s total deal is worth less than DeMarcus Ware’s first year with the Broncos, and Gerhart averaged just shy of 8 yards per carry last season.
DeMarcus Ware was set to earn $13M in 2014 from the #Cowboys. How much will he make in Year 1 from Denver? $13M. $20M in first 2
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 12, 2014
Other notable running backs have been able to find footholds in the league, but just barely. The Raiders hung onto Darren McFadden, signing him to a one-year deal, and the Colts did the same by signing Ahmad Bradshaw to a one-year contract.
The NFL is a no-loyalty league that simply asks players, “What have you done for me lately?” There’s little room for aging running backs when there are replacements that are several years younger and potentially millions of dollars cheaper that can produce just as many yards on game day.
Running backs take a beating throughout their careers. Consider this. Runners are hit on nearly every single play they have the ball. Aside from running out of bounds or scoring a touchdown, a running back is hitting the ground when he’s handed the ball. Quarterbacks rarely take hits, and even many receivers have, wisely, taken to giving themselves up in the middle of the field when there’s little left to be gained on any given play.
Running backs will almost certainly be a fixture in the NFL for decades to come, but there’s no denying that their role in the game has diminished over time. Their careers are often characterized by short stints of great play followed by an inability to stay on the field, if for no other reason than simply not being able to find a team to play for. Nothing illustrates that more than the deals we’ve seen in free agency, and nothing in the foreseeable future is going to change that.