Column by Ken Cohen
Prior to Ray Rice and Matt Forte signing with the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears for approximately $8 million per year, these were the top ten annual salaries for running backs in the NFL:
1. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans, $8,000,000
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings, $8,000,000
3. Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams, $7,000,000
4. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders, $5,650,000
5. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers, $5,250,000
6. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons, $5,000,000
7. Arian Foster, Houston Texans, $5,000,000
8. Reggie Bush, Miami Dolphins, $4,500,000
9. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars, $4,450,000
10. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks, $4,000,000
Anything strike you about this list? Here’s a clue: look at the teams forking over the money. Only two of them made the playoffs last year Houston and Atlanta and both were eliminated in the first round.
This is not a coincidence. The teams that have dominated the NFL over the last decade or so The Patriots, Giants, Steelers, Colts, Packers all realized a long time ago that you don’t sink money into running backs, no matter how good they are. Not only does the passing game rule in the NFL, but running backs have a life span of less than four years and they are easily replaceable. There are so many good running backs coming out of college and good is all that is asked for in the NFL’s pass-happy offensive systems. The days of needing a great back are long gone.
That’s why the top teams will never pay any running back huge bucks they simply bring in someone younger and cheaper who can just fit in. They use one player for third and short, another guy for the second-and-five flare pass and still someone else for the sweep right. Very similar to what the best baseball teams do with their relief staffs three different pitchers for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
Perhaps the best example of the ephemeral nature of NFL running backs is what went on in Denver throughout the 90s. After Terrell Davis clearly established himself as the best back in the league, the Broncos unwrapped 1,500-yard runners Mike Anderson and Clint Portis in the years following Davis’ departure. No disrespect to Davis, but the Bronco system and its efficient offensive line created an environment where any good running back could churn out huge seasons.
Now, the best teams don’t even care whether backs have big years. Adequacy will do.
Why the other teams in the league the ones that have been struggling for years don’t get it is certainly a mystery. The championship teams have shared their blueprint for success and it doesn’t include $10 million running backs. Why, if you’re the Titans, Vikings, Raiders and Jaguars of the NFL world, are you not paying attention?
The Ravens and Bears have been among the best teams in the league and apparently they think it’s because of Rice and Forte. While those guys are good probably among the best in the league, there is no history to suggest that awarding these mega-million dollar contracts will be wise moves. Just like any investment, statistical trends and past results, usually are the best predictors of what’s to come. There is just no evidence to support paying a running back that kind of money if Super Bowls are the ultimate goal.
Ken Cohen brings 30 years of publishing experience, many covering sports and working for sports companies, His column, “Further Review” will appear every Friday.