The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement is nine years old, and it’s badly broken. The rookie salary cap is so low that some teams build their entire personnel strategy around the short windows when they have a quarterback at that bargain price. No one outside of the top ten picks each year makes any real money on their rookie contract; they have to stay healthy and productive for four or five years to get paid on their extension.
For running backs, it’s even worse. Their careers are so short that teams are considered foolish to extend even star RBs, If they get franchise tagged, their pay is the fourth-lowest in football, barely ahead of safeties and less than half what quarterbacks make. Teams have an incentive to grind them into the dirt during their rookie deal, then let them go.
That is what Dallas did with DeMarco Murray. In 2014, the final season of his rookie deal, they called his number over 500 times (436 carries and 70 targets) before letting him walk. He was never the same after that and retired three years later.
After a year of Darren McFadden, Dallas drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft, and he has been great, the engine of an offense with a mediocre scheme and QB. But the ‘Boys started down the same path as with DeMarco, giving Zeke 350 carries and over a hundred pass targets last year as they executed his fifth-year option.
He wasn’t having it and held out. By staying in Cabo San Lucas, he forced the Cowboys to give him to a six-year extension for $90 million, with $50 million guaranteed. But he owes a significant debt to Le’Veon Bell, who sat out all of last year after refusing to sign a second franchise tag in Pittsburgh. He got a four-year, $52 million contract with $35 million guaranteed, and the ability to choose the team he wanted.
The reality in pro football has long been that the only real leverage players have is through the threat of holding out. This goes back to the legendary Howard Slusher, “Agent Orange,” the most feared agent of the 1980s. (He is now Phil Knight’s right-hand man at Nike, making a few million a year.)
Slusher helped legendary defensive tackle Randy White hold out against the Cowboys’ equally feared GM Tex Schramm way back in 1984 — a successful move that ushered in the modern era of free agency and eventually led to the first collective bargaining agreement.
The current CBA expires after the 2020 season, and hopefully, it will be renegotiated to kill or at least raise the rookie salary cap and find a better way to pay running backs for the shorter and more punishing careers. But until then, holdouts are the only leverage that RBs have.
Some people have mocked Le’Veon Bell, for missing a year of NFL salary. That’s foolish. Not only did he guarantee $35 million going forward, but there’s a good chance he extended his career by at least a year by sitting out 2018, getting a chance to step off the treadmill and heal up. RBs don’t age out of their careers, they wear out and get injured.
Sure, teams can find other running backs and pay them less. Maybe they can even get nearly as much production for less money, though statistics can be misleading. A team might get “only” 450 yards less from a second-string RB than their star, 1,000 instead of 1,450, for half the money. But if those 450 yards translate into 150 3rd and 7s instead of 3rd and 4s, your offense will be a lot less effective.
More to the point, just because teams can get away with screwing over players doesn’t mean they should. I don’t understand why so many fans and writers sagely encourage teams to shortchange running backs. If it takes holdouts — resting up until they’re fairly paid — to get fair compensation, then more power to the RBs.