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The 5 O’Clock Club: The NFL needs a solution to ‘the running back problem’

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

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I got my college undergraduate degree in Business Administration and Management, so I understand the free market system and the effects of supply and demand as well as the average citizen, perhaps even better than average.

Living in a capitalist society and (for the most part) world economy, I enjoy the fruits of capitalism every day.

I’m as quick as any football fan, and quicker than many, to say about a guy like Dalvin Cook or Saquon Barkley that the player is not, even as a great running back, worth as much at his age (27 and 26, respectively) as he thinks he is.

But let’s not fool ourselves — the NFL is not a free-market capitalist organization. While it may be, in its ideal form, a meritocracy where excellent performance and attitude are rewarded with increased playing time, the monetary rewards are highly controlled and carefully structured. Rookie wages are the opposite of free market; they are slotted by draft position and artificially suppressed. In a league that enforces a hard salary cap, the result is that more money is paid to veterans who have established themselves. The really big monetary rewards are reserved for those players who excel in at least the first three years of their careers, at which point, players, to varying degrees, are able to negotiate for bigger paydays.

The problem is that the change in skills and knowledge for a running back when he goes from college to the NFL is less than for any other offensive or defensive position. Clearly QB is the hardest, involving learning a new offensive strategy and playcalling language, learning about NFL defensive schemes in general and weekly opponents in particular, and dealing with an entirely new level of athleticism and skill from both the opposition and his own teammates. It can take years to groom a quarterback; that’s one huge reason why they are so valuable and last so long.

Wide receivers, tight ends and DBs may take a season or two to fully understand route concepts and develop new skills for getting open or defending passes. Pass rushers and offensive tackles work constantly to upgrade their skills, and generally peak after a year or two of conditioning and coaching. Centers have to learn to understand opposing defensive alignments in order to control pass protections.

By contrast, you can give a running back one training camp with a good position coach to learn the playbook and reinforce fundamentals like how to hold the ball and press the hole, and he’s good to go. The basic skills of speed, power and elusiveness are mostly fully formed when talented running backs arrive in the NFL. They are in what is, largely, a plug & play position — ‘run to daylight’ — and their first 4 to 6 years in the league are typically their most productive

It’s also true that there’s not much difference in results between an average NFL running back and a very good NFL back because so much depends on scheme, blocking and game script. Think of Washington’s own offense, and how it performs when undrafted free agent Jaret Patterson takes the field to replace 3rd round pick and former starter for the Alabama Crimson Tide, Brian Robinson. Patterson carried 17 times for 78 yards against the Cowboys in Week 18.

This means that the supply of serviceable running backs is almost endless relative to a team’s needs — and the needs of the entire NFL for that matter. While the league is constantly struggling to find enough talented quarterbacks to make 32 teams competitive, when you watch late-December and early January football, it’s common to see running backs you may have never heard of step up as injury replacements and deliver strong production (think Tyler Allgeier, Isaiah Pacheco).

There is still a place for elite running backs to excel in the league, but it is generally early in their careers, often before age 28 and almost always before age 30. An elite running back can transform an NFL team, but his ability to dominate opponents usually fades soon after his rookie contract comes to an end.

In short, the NFL system of monetary rewards does not work for elite running backs like Le’Veon Bell, Dalvin Cook, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs. They use up their best years playing under a CBA-mandated rookie wage and then become free agents just as their valuable on-field skills are about to begin the quick process of deterioration.

Sure, you can point to exceptions — Frank Gore holds the record for an NFL running back at 241 games, and Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Thomlinson and Barry Sanders all played more than 230. But in today’s NFL, the tenure of even the best running backs is usually limited in duration, and — more importantly for today’s discussion — in monetary compensation.

For example, per Over the Cap, Adrian Peterson, in his 15-year career that ended just a season ago, earned $99.6m in cash, and only earned more than $13m in a season once (in 2011 — the year the rookie wage scale took effect). Consider this list (copied from Wikipedia) of AD’s career highlights, awards and headline stats:

The current compensation system of the NFL is, for the most part, a boon for players. In just a handful of seasons, even average players can bank what would amount to a lifetime of earnings for the typical American worker. It’s hard to “feel sorry” for any player that earns his way into the opportunity secure generational wealth for his family.

But it’s not hard to recognize inequity in the existing CBA-mandated compensation system. Along with flaws in such areas as franchise tags, one of the most glaring inequities is the mismatch between NFL compensation and the productive careers of elite running backs.

ProFootballTalk recently wrote about the issue:

The current CBA screws running backs. They make low wages in the best years of their careers, thanks to the rookie wage scale. Thanks to the franchise tag, the best of the best running backs see their compensation dragged down by a market that doesn’t pay much for veterans.

This year, the franchise tag for running backs is $10.1 million. Two years ago, it was $11.1 million.

While the fundamental problem relates to supply and demand (frankly, the best athletes should just play other positions in high school and college), the system definitely treats running backs differently. Even as good receivers are becoming more plentiful via the draft, the average veteran wideout (Allen Lazard) will make the same $12 million this year that one of the best running backs (Christian McCaffrey) will be paid.

The inherent injury risk is another factor. Running backs get pounded around. They get hurt, at a higher rate than other skill positions. Is that really their fault? The game needs running backs. Currently, the game chews them up and spits them out and deprives them their fair share.

The easiest way to solve the problem would be for the running backs to have their own bargaining unit, and their own bargaining power. We’ve consistently suggested in recent months a league-wide fund that would pay young running backs based on their production, ensuring that they receive proper compensation when their salaries are, relative to other star players, peanuts.

Four years ago, an effort was made to carve NFL running backs out of the NFL Players Association, in order to create their own union.

In August 2019, Veronica Patton filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking clarification of the broader NFLPA bargaining unit, while explaining that the “rookie wage contract is economically harmful to workers in skill group (RB), but advantageous to players in skill group (QB),” and that the “current one-size fits all” approach to NFL players is “inappropriate.”

Some people read read PFT’s well-reasoned argument and think he said that there needs to be a separate salary cap for running backs. Clearly, those people haven’t taken the time to read the article.

PFT argues convincingly about the rookie wage scale, which is not the salary cap, but an artificial tool put in place to do an end-run around the free market system that used to exist where incoming rookies were able to negotiate their contracts with teams.

The salaries of NFL players have always been subject to forces that are far from a totally free and open market system that capitalists (like me) subscribe to. It’s certainly true that owners and players have agreed on measures that have further limited the free market system to a greater degree, with the goal of improving competitiveness between the teams of the league, understanding that this heightened competition would grow the league overall, resulting in a bigger pie — such a massively huge pie, in fact, that even a punter or backup offensive lineman would end up earning significant money. It’s the ideal case of a rising tide raising the level of all the ships in the harbor.

Seen in this light, some observers will argue that no players have anything to complain about — that they should, in effect, shut up, do their jobs, take the money, and be grateful.

But the rookie wage scale is not one of the elements of collective bargaining that raises the level of all ships equally. The rookie wage scale — probably the most anti-market, anti=capitalist mechanism that exists for players in the NFL — is like a sort of dam that divides the harbor in half to keep the water on one side much lower than the water on the other side. When the tide comes in (i.e., when league revenues increase), only a trickle is let through the wall to the Rookie Wage Pool, meaning that those on the other side of the wall — the veterans who have lasted beyond the length of their rookie contracts — have a deeper pool that carries them much higher.

This portion of the CBA — the rookie wage scale — serves no identifiable purpose, except to end the holdouts of drafted players (another issue that deserves attention) that were a feature of the NFL for years before the implementation of the 2011 agreement. Why else take away a player’s right to negotiate the best salary he can?

The rookie wage scale benefits veteran players who are good enough to excel in the NFL and reach free agency because — with a fixed amount of money (the salary cap) — when less money goes to younger players, what’s left has to be paid to older players.

The NFLPA, then, has not served the interests of NFL players equitably; it has bargained for a deal that benefits veterans a great deal more than it does players who are subject to slotted contracts (that is, those subject to the rookie wage scale). Why did this happen, and why was it not changed in the 2020 agreement? Because NFLPA members are players who are already in the league; the members are the ones who benefit from the rookie wage scale. Incoming rookies are still in college and not members of the union.

Seen from this vantage point, the union is doing what it should be doing — it is looking after the best interests of its members (but not all players).

One fly in the ointment is that the players with the shortest ‘shelf life’ — who are also members of the same union — don’t get the same benefit as do players at other positions. The rookie wage scale puts Derek Carr in the deep end of the pool where he can frolic and have a good time, while Josh Jacobs has to splash around in the kiddie pool during his most productive years.

In short, the rookie wage scale doesn’t really work for elite running backs like Dalvin Cook, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs. The argument isn’t that they should be paid more or differently when they are 27 years old; the argument is that, in a league where collective bargaining is federally mandated to allow the NFL to be exempt from the nation’s anti-trust prohibitions, running backs need someone other than the NFLPA looking out for their interests because their situations are not aligned with players at other positions.

Who knows what changes might come about if the collective bargaining process included a body that was there to protect the best interests of running backs in the Collective Bargaining Agreement? Imagine how different the CBA would look if college players had someone at the bargaining table looking after their best interests.

Right now, there are some opportunities built in for players on rookie contracts. First of all, every team has the opportunity to extend a player after he completes 3 seasons under his rookie deal (which basically means he can renegotiate his contract at that point). Also, the Proven Performance Escalator automatically increases the 4th year salaries of mid- and late-round draft picks (think Kamren Curl) who meet certain performance metrics in their first three seasons. These types of mechanisms are in place to partially (very partially) offset the effects of the rookie wage scale and address some of its inbuilt inequity.

If running backs were better-represented during the federally mandated collective bargaining process by negotiators who were aware of their different situation, then alternate solutions might be found. What if, for example, there were a provision in the CBA that allowed a running back who met very high performance targets (say, top ten in yards gained in each of his first two seasons) to void his 5th year option (if applicable) and renegotiate his contract after two years instead of three, while a running back who achieve elite targets (say, top-5 in yards gained or top-10 in both yards gained and TDs scored) would be allowed to void the 5th year option and renegotiate his deal at the end of that season. Such provision could include protection for the team that drafted the player, such as an option for the team to automatically have the option to add one or two years to the player’s contract length in such a renegotiation.

If you applied such a system to Josh Jacobs, who was drafted in the 1st round of the 2019 draft, you’d see the following results:

Jacobs wouldn’t have qualified as a rookie under the metrics I provided, but he would have qualified for renegotiation after his 2020 season. If he pulled the trigger on the renegotiation then, he and the Raiders could have sat down and re-written his contract. Under that contract, he would have been earning a market rate in 2021, when he had the worst year of his short career, and 2022, when he led the league in rushing.

Going into 2023, instead of wrangling over the team’s use of the 5th year option, he would be under the team’s control — probably through 2024 — with the option of the franchise tag still available to the Vegas front office, which could extend his tenure with the Raiders (at the team’s option) through 2026 when he would be 28 years old. This gives balanced control to the player and the team since Jacobs doesn’t need to trigger a renegotiation if he wants to leave in free agency sooner or thinks he can get a better deal by waiting, and the team, while it has to negotiate, doesn’t have to agree to terms. If Jacobs triggers his option after the 2020 season, the Raiders could trade him, let him walk in free agency and potentially collect a comp pick, renegotiate but not extend the contract beyond the ‘22 season, or go ‘all in’ on the running back, giving them, effectively, 8 years of control over his contract.

Let me be clear — this example is spitballing; I’m just tossing out an example of how existing NFL practices like early renegotiation and proven performance metrics might be slightly modified to create a much more equitable situation for elite NFL running backs. The current system is designed to allow a guy like Aaron Rodgers to frolic in the deep end of the money pool after he has honed his skills and is at the peak of his value to a team. The same system artificially suppresses the earnings potential of a player like Jacobs while he is at his peak, and only allows him access to free agency at almost the exact point where most running backs’ skills and value to the team begin to decline, which is a clear failure of the collective bargaining system to protect the best interests of running backs, just like it fails to protect the interests of college players. The difference is that running backs are part of the NFLPA while college players are not. If the union isn’t taking care of them, the players should be looking for new solutions.

This is not a made up problem of people who don’t understand the mechanisms of market dynamics. It is a problem created by the artificial market manipulation of the rookie wage scale. For elite athletes at most positions, the rookie wage scale simply delays the payday they have worked all their lives to achieve. For elite running backs, however, it takes away the market opportunities at the time when they are at the peak of their skills, and gives them the opportunity to compete for cap dollars only when those skills that make them great are in decline. Is it any wonder that running back salaries started to fall sharply right after the introduction of the rookie wage scale in 2011?

PFT didn’t ask for running backs to get some artificial anti-capitalist/anti-market treatment. Rather, they suggested that running backs are different (they are) in terms of ‘shelf life’, meaning that they have a time limit on their earning potential. But the NFL uses an anti-capitalist/anti-market system that artificially depresses salaries of players during their rookie contracts. This has the effect of rewarding elite players at most positions when they complete those rookie deals and enter free agency just as they are reaching the height of their skill level in the NFL, but that system simply doesn’t work well for elite running backs.

The recommendation that running backs would be better served to have their own union representing their interests in labor negotiations seems, more than just reasonable — it seems like the very least that young running backs should be asking for...or demanding.


Do you agree that NFL running backs face a basic inequity in compensation and career when compared to NFL players at other offensive and defensive positions?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    (139 votes)
  • 20%
    (54 votes)
  • 25%
    I’ll say ‘yes’, but only for ‘elite’ running backs
    (65 votes)
258 votes total Vote Now


Do you think that some basic action (e.g., a separate union) is needed to help running backs get fairer treatment in collective bargaining?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    (80 votes)
  • 42%
    (105 votes)
  • 21%
    I’m ambivalent
    (54 votes)
  • 4%
    (11 votes)
250 votes total Vote Now