Despite popular opinion, NFL's top RBs are getting paid after all
Ray Rice and Matt Forte were the obvious winners on a fairly dramatic deadline-day Monday in the NFL, but coming out on the losing end was the theory that running backs don't get monster paydays in today's pass-first, run-only-when-you-have-to version of professional football.
Remember? They're all just interchangeable parts anyway. Running back has become a disposable position. Just use one up, then go out and find another. They're not roster cornerstones in this day and age of high-powered, pass-centric offenses. You overpay for one, and you'll rue the day at some point soon.
But like a controversial and game-changing call in the fourth quarter, perhaps the notion of just where an elite runner fits into a team's hierarchy needs plenty of further review. After all, you'd be hard-pressed to find two players who mean more to their team's chances to win each week than the indefatigable Rice in Baltimore and the versatile Forte in Chicago. True, neither the Ravens nor Bears have won a Super Bowl with those backs in their featured roles since 2008, but Baltimore played for the AFC title last season (and twice in four years) in large part because of Rice's contributions, and Chicago went to the NFC Championship Game in 2010 with Forte taking a front and center role.
To put it another way, remove either one of the 2008 second-round picks from their clubs and where would the Ravens and Bears be? We got a glimpse of Forte's real value in Chicago after his season-ending knee injury last year helped turn the Bears from playoff contenders to lightweight pretenders in early December. To their credit, the Ravens and Bears knew some rushers are elite enough to be worth paying for, even in today's game, and anted up for Rice and Forte, doling out deals that averaged about $8 million a year.
And here's the real news flash that Monday's developments underlined: That kind of big-money move at running back is becoming something of the norm, not the exception. And such moves are shooting holes -- or perhaps more accurately, zeros -- in the perception that the league won't pay handsomely for rushing talent.
Consider what has transpired in the elite running back market since 2011:
-- The Vikings set the bar by giving Adrian Peterson $100 million over seven years, with $36 million guaranteed.
-- The Titans finally made nice with Chris Johnson, placating him to the tune of $53.5 million over four years, with $30 million guaranteed.
-- The Panthers somewhat surprisingly lavished DeAngelo Williams with a five-year, $43 million deal that guaranteed him $21 million and kept him away from free agency.
-- The Seahawks secured the services of Marshawn Lynch with a four-year, $31 million contract that included $18 million guaranteed.
-- The Texans paid up for the bargain that Arian Foster has been, giving him five years at $43.5 million, with $20.75 million guaranteed.
-- And the Eagles moved aggressively to make LeSean McCoy happy, striking a deal for five years at $45 million, with $20.77 guaranteed.
Add Rice and Forte's windfalls to that group and you have eight teams -- one-fourth of the league -- that has recently put their money where their mouth is in regards to the value they place on the lead running back rung of their depth charts. Having youth and production on your side will still get you paid in the NFL, even with the widely espoused belief that running backs simply don't last long enough to warrant sizable investments, or don't carry enough of the offensive burden anymore to earn those mega-deals.
Have all those big contracts handed out to No. 1 rushers looked wise in short-term hindsight? Of course not. Such is the nature of the pay-the-man game in the NFL. Johnson underachieved mightily last season in Tennessee, and Williams didn't exactly earn his salary in Carolina. Peterson suffered a major late-season knee injury and certainly didn't make the difference for a last-place Vikings team, and Lynch is now back in potential legal trouble after a DUI arrest, which could elicit the second league suspension of his career.
Still, Foster has been a godsend for Houston's offense and will only be 26 next month. His deal looks like a smart bet from this vantage point, as does McCoy's. The fourth-year Eagle has been one of the most productive playmakers in the league since his rookie season of 2009, and he only turned 24 the other day. Rice (25) and Forte (26) are still in their primes, and even Peterson at 27, though rehabilitating from a serious knee injury, figures to regain the form that made him the league's most explosive rushing threat.
With Monday's signings continuing the recent trend, it's clear that reports of the death of the well-paid lead running back in the NFL have been greatly exaggerated of late, even if some teams like the Patriots, Packers, Colts, Saints, Steelers and Giants have won plenty without having that one big-salaried featured rusher in their huddles. The quarterbacks have ruled in those NFL markets, and deservedly soaked up plenty of the salary cap space. That list is dotted with Super Bowl winning passers like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Peyton Manning, and who can argue with that pass-happy approach?
But as the 2012 season looms, there's still room for the rushing game in the NFL, and Rice's and Forte's new deals prove that running the ball is hardly passe'.
• Despite all the hand-wringing in recent months about the contract fate of franchise players like Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Rice and Forte, all three players got lucrative, long-term contracts and avoided the big question of whether they would hold out from training camp and potentially ruin their team's chances this season.
Will we ever learn that anything of consequence almost always goes to the deadline in the NFL? It's the same story year after year, and it always will be. Deadlines prompt action like nothing else, be it a labor lockout or a contract stalemate, and yet we continue to expend huge amounts of energy and attention on issues that almost certainly won't get resolved until they absolutely have to be resolved from a timetable standpoint.
• Not everybody got paid on Monday, of course. If I'm Detroit, I'd want to see more from defensive end Cliff Avril before I'd make him a long-term franchise cornerstone. He's a good player who has produced in the sack department, but a $10.6 million, one-year salary for him means there are no losers in that scenario.
In Kansas City, I can't blame the Chiefs for not investing big-time in No. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe, who still doesn't exhibit the maturity and the dedication to make everyone believe he gets it. I still can't forget the sight of Bowe short-arming a ball late in a home loss to Pittsburgh last season. Until that kind of halfhearted effort is a thing of the past, Kansas City has the right to be dubious.
As for Wes Welker in New England, his age (31) and position (slot receiver, working the underneath routes) certainly seem to have convinced the Patriots he's not worth overextending for. He's reliable and wildly productive, but New England basically thinks he's a "system'' receiver and it appears content to get one more season out of him and then move to replace him with a younger model. That is the Patriot Way, after all, and who are we to question sheer genius?
If there was a minor surprise to me, it was that San Francisco didn't get anything long-term done with sixth-year veteran safety Dashon Goldson, who won't turn 28 until September. A fourth-round pick out of Washington in 2007, Goldson has been a significant contributor to the 49ers' defensive emergence, and he's the kind of solid player most teams like to lock up. Still, at a $6.2 million salary in 2012, Goldson shouldn't feel slighted this season. For all the huffing and puffing the players union does about the onerous nature of the franchise tag, there were only winners and bigger winners among those ranks this year.