Running back: Devolution of a proud position

Chicago Bears running back Gayle Sayers (40) in action against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports
Chicago Bears running back Gayle Sayers (40) in action against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports

In this, the first in a series on the state of running backs, we discuss how a dramatic evolution has negatively impacted a once proud position. The series will look back at RBs selected in the 2024 draft, ahead to a 2025 class that seems loaded with runners and even further ahead to the high school recruiting classes of 2025 and 2026, players who should be in the NFL draft in about 2029 and 2030.


Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be … running backs.


Not anymore. Not unless something changes.


A position that we once glorified has devolved into an afterthought that leaves us horrified. Even as we canonize some of the great backs who gallop through the canyons of our memories, their football descendants are being treated like crap.


There was Jim Brown bashing his way to immortality in only nine seasons. Words fail to define his immense impact, so we move on …


There was Gale Sayers gracefully gliding to six touchdowns on a muddy field, making ankle-breaking lateral moves that defy physics and physiology.


There was Barry Sanders dancing and darting to the “can’t-touch-this” music in his mind as he navigated space with unpredictable vectors, like a moth in a windstorm.


There was Marcus Allen, who embodied a little of everything. He could run around, over, or through a goal-line defense. Or catch a TD pass. He was a blocking fullback for Bo Jackson. And just when you think you stopped him, Allen could pass the ball. The only thing he couldn’t do was win the admiration of his boss, Al Davis.


In the mileage-plus category, we had the nuanced dashes of Emmitt Smith, who rushed farther than all others thanks to patience, durability, and a front line that was the most formidable this side of the Great Wall of China.


Yes, there are others of all shapes, sizes, strengths, and speeds, and we each have our favorites. These creative showmen captured our imagination possibly more than players at any other position.


Long before those aforementioned runners, the league was abuzz with star backs known by their Hall of Fame nicknames. Red Grange was “The Galloping Ghost.” There was Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Hugh “The King” McEllheny and Joe “The Jet” Perry. These characters became caricatures who enlivened games and stories back in the day.


Cruel and unusual punishment


But, then and now, working as a running back is a serious undertaking.


It is a position that demands uber toughness just to endure, let alone excel. It is at once complex and simple. Complex? Great backs must block and catch as well as run. Simple? Just find a way to get from point A to point B. How you do that becomes your signature that makes you unique or at least memorable.


The brutal game of football foists more cruel and unusual punishment on running backs than any other position. But, except for kickers and punters, the game offers running backs the least in return.

Even the rewards for being the very best in the league are almost embarrassing compared to other positions.


San Francisco 49ers’ multi-talented running back Christian McCaffrey, aka “CMC,” rose to the top of the position in 2023 when he led the league with 1,459 yards rushing (14 TDs), added 564 yards receiving (57 catches, seven TDs) and was named the AP Offensive Player of the Year.


For that, he was awarded a two-year extension, creating a four-year deal worth $62.2 million. He was already the highest-paid running back in football at just over $16 million a year. The extension puts him at $19 million a year.


Sounds great, right? In reality, it’s almost a made-for-PR scam that benefits the 49ers with softer salary cap hits over the term of the deal.


McCaffery is making $5 million more than the No. 2 running back, the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara, who is in the fifth and final year of his current contract. When he didn’t get an extension, Kamara left the team’s mandatory minicamp last week before the final day, an interesting move considering 2023 was his worst season. Good luck out there, Alvin.


In the big picture, McCaffery’s extension moved him from outside the top 100-paid NFL players (105) all the way up to No. 90. We are sure the McCaffery family celebrated to the tune of “We’re number 90!”  


This is another example of how poorly running backs are valued. At a position where careers average a league-low 2.57 years, the running back is, on average, the lowest-paid among the 22 so-called scrimmage positions.


This is perhaps best reflected in the league’s compensation chart for players who are franchised. The franchise tag on a running back is $11.9 million per season, just below tight ends ($12.7 million) and above kickers and punters ($5.9 million)



QB      $38,301,000

LB       $24,007,000

DT       $22,102,000

WR      $21,816,000

DE       $21,324,000

OL       $20,985,000

CB       $19,802,000

S         $17,123,000

TE       $12,693,000

RB       $11,951,000

K/P      $5,984,000


While there certainly seems to be an inequity vis-a-vis job demands vs. pay, it is all too easily explained in terms of business, strategy, and the evolution of the game. In an ongoing attempt to increase scoring, the league has made it easier and more equitable to pass and catch the ball rather than to run it.


Sometimes, hidden in the guise of safety concerns, evolving rules made quarterbacks almost untouchable. And receivers are less inclined to be concerned about a hit reminiscent of those delivered by Jack Tatum, Ronnie Lott, or Rodney Harrison. Their careers are highlight reels of what is now illegal contact of one sort or another, although I still strongly endorse Tatum and Harrison to join Lott in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


A confluence of issues


Along with the rule changes, running backs are hurt by a confluence of other issues: the salary cap, a rookie wage scale and a season that grew to 17 games and is eyeing 18. This makes running backs a financial and strategic inconvenience and a physical or medical gamble. They are caught between the rookie-contract structure instituted in 2011 and salary cap limitations that make them less valuable than a No. 2 receiver, cornerback, pass rusher or offensive tackle when it is time to get a second contract.  


With running backs viewed by some as disposable because of their short careers, teams are more reluctant to pick one very high in the draft.


Since the first combined draft in 1967, only twice were running backs not selected in the first round — 2022 and 2024. Yep, two of the last three drafts.


College football fed into this trend when it began to go to four wideouts and smaller running backs who served as yet another receiver. And there is this: Young athletes who have a choice will opt to play wide receiver instead of running back. We are seeing it at the high school level.


In the late '70s film North Dallas Forty, former NFL defensive end John Matuszak, as O. W. Shaddock says, “Every time we call it a game, you call it a business … Every time we call it a business, you call it a game...” We’ll stop there with the G-rated version. The point is that athletes are making business decisions at 16 years old, in high school.


So it is not a coincidence that while no running backs were selected in the first round this year, a record-tying six quarterbacks and seven wide receivers were called.   

But there still is definitely a need for running backs in the NFL.


Pass plays were called 58 percent of the time in 2023, but the NFL had a dozen running backs who rushed for at least 1,000 yards and eight more with at least 900 yards. They got their 42 percent’s worth.


However, this still doesn’t bode well for veterans seeking a big payday in a second contract. Of the top 20 rushers last year, 12 were on rookie contracts. Even if those young runners last long enough to demand that second contract, teams can franchise them rather than hock the team’s long-term future with guaranteed pay.


Where is this all going?


Ironically, the 2025 NFL Draft looms as a litmus test for running backs worthy of early consideration. Ratings by NFL Draft Scout show seven backs with the potential to be taken in the first two rounds and nine in the top 100.


More to come: Before our Justyce Gordon reveals the results of his film work on those 2025 running back prospects, Jeremy Bissett will next pore over the backs drafted this year to see who among them might make an impact. After that, we will dive into the preps and see how many young athletes are still playing running back. Or will the game feature five receivers and a running quarterback?

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