For teams, whether or not to pay top backs is a risky decision
Here's a little quiz: Name the leading playoff rusher for the last five Super Bowl champs.
Answer: James Starks, Green Bay (2010); Pierre Thomas, New Orleans (2009); Willie Parker, Pittsburgh (2008); Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants (2007); Dominic Rhodes, Indianapolis (2006).
Good running backs? Yes. Elite, highest-paid-in-the-NFL running backs? Not quite.
The common denominator for these recent Super Bowl-winning teams is that they all had elite, highly-paid quarterbacks leading the way in a league that's more pass-happy and quarterback-driven than ever. The Patriots of the Belichick/Brady era are a prime example of a consistent, championship-caliber team that has thrived on offense without a big-name, big-money back.
It's not like the old championship days of Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung in Green Bay, Jim Brown in Cleveland or Walter Payton and the '85 Bears.
The numbers are staggering in terms of the dominance of today's passing game. For the defending champion Packers, 75 percent of the total offense is through the air. New England gets 74 percent of its offense from Tom Brady, and the Saints are at 72 percent. Even the top rushing team in the league, the Eagles, generate 60 percent of their offense via the pass.
Running backs are simply being valued lower than other positions designed to produce or prevent the pass, despite many of the good multi-purpose backs playing an integral role in the passing game as well as the run game. Look at the first round of this year's draft for proof. One running back was taken (Mark Ingram by the Saints at No. 28), while four quarterbacks, three wide receivers, six offensive tackles, eight defensive ends and three cornerbacks went in the first round.
That change highlights the risk in paying running backs big money, no matter how good they've proved to be.
The best-paid running backs in the NFL today, Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson, are highly unlikely to lead their teams to a championship, at least this year. Peterson is producing, but his Vikings are 2-6. And Johnson's struggles for the 4-4 Titans have been well-documented.
After his training camp holdout and subsequent $53.5 million extension ($30 million of which was guaranteed), Johnson ranks just 28th in rushing, two years removed from being the first player to rush for over 2,000 yards and catch over 500 yards in the same season. The drop-off has been so steep that people are wondering if Johnson's days as a top back are done at just 26. Right behind Johnson on the rushing list? Carolina's DeAngelo Williams, who received $21 million in guarantees on a new deal this year. He's splitting time with Jonathan Stewart.
Teams are wary of the shorter productive life span for NFL running backs compared to other positions. Rare is the back who plays at a Pro Bowl level into his late 20s as 300-plus-carry seasons take their toll.
Combine all these factors and it's no wonder that it's becoming increasingly difficult for the premier running backs (such as Chicago's Matt Forte and Baltimore's Ray Rice, who are next in line) to get paid the big bucks in today's NFL. Is it any wonder that GMs such as the Bears' Jerry Angelo have heart palpitations when they think about what happens if they sign their star running back to a lucrative long-term deal, only to see his productivity fade due to any number of reasons? By giving out those big deals despite the warning signs, a team risks having to trade or release a player early in the deal. In those situations, the remaining guaranteed money left hits the team's cap. That's called "dead money" and is a GM's biggest financial nightmare.
For top backs like Forte and Rice (as it was for Peterson and Johnson during their lengthy negotiations), the reality of the running back pay scale can be a source of major frustration. And for the GMs, it's a big challenge to keep the peace with their star players while not overpaying for the running back position.
Top backs and their agents know that they must maximize their pay as soon as possible, given their shorter careers. While GMs want to reward their top-producing players (if they don't, it sends a bad message to the rest of the team), they know where their priorities lie in spending money: quarterback, left tackles, pass-rushers, cornerbacks and receivers. They're the players getting the $12-20 million per year deals, while the top-paid running backs are in the $10 million per year range with less guaranteed money (which certainly isn't bad, but not top "playmaker" money, like Johnson wanted).
This brings us back to Forte and Rice, a pair of second-round picks in the 2008 draft who are both in the final year of their rookie deals. They are excellent, multi-purpose backs. Forte leads the NFL in combined yards rushing and receiving through eight games (805 yards rushing, 436 yards receiving, generating close to 50 percent of the Bears offensive yardage). Rice ranks sixth (948 combined yards) after finishing third last season.
Forte and Rice are taking very different approaches to their contract negotiations. Forte has been very vocal in expressing his displeasure with the Bears, saying publicly that he feels unappreciated and that the Bears are "grinding me into a pulp." He has teammates like Brian Urlacher lobbying for him. Meanwhile, Rice has flown under the radar, keeping quiet on the contract front despite recent reports that he is seeking a new deal. Another back seeking a new deal, Peyton Hillis, has alienated everyone in Cleveland as he misses games with strep throat (or contract-itis). The Browns will probably tell him to take a hike soon.
The strategy of ratcheting up the public pressure on the Bears by Forte vs. playing it low key and behind the scenes by Rice is an interesting contrast. I can speak from experience in saying I was more amenable to making a deal when negotiations were kept private.
Bears GM Jerry Angelo and Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome know the value of their top backs. But, again, they know where their priorities lie. They'd surely like to sign Forte and Rice to deals closer to what Frank Gore received from the 49ers in his extension this year -- $13.5 million guaranteed and $7 million per year. But it's tough to get those numbers now with the Peterson and Johnson deals in place.
The Bears and Ravens also hold the trump card, the franchise tag, which for running backs will be in the $7.7 million range in 2012. That could buy one more year to delay or avoid the expensive long-term deal. But the franchise tag can elevate the tension in a high-stakes negotiation, as the player does not gain the big guaranteed money of a long-term deal. It often sets the stage for a holdout, which is detrimental to both sides.
This dilemma of paying running backs big money is nothing new in the NFL, even though the trend toward overwhelming dominance of the passing game is more recent.
As Vikings GM in 1998, I faced a potential offer sheet of $25 million over five years for our top running back, Robert Smith. He was coming off a 1,266-yard season and had great talent, but an extensive injury history and a questionable long-term commitment to football (he often talked of wanting to do other things). I agonized over that deal more than any other in my career before matching the offer.
Smith played three of the five years at a high level -- three straight 1,000-yard seasons (leading the NFC with 1,521 rushing yards in 2000) -- and helped guide the team to the NFC title game in 1998 and 2000. Then he abruptly retired after the third year, at 28. The Vikings got good, but not max value from Smith's deal.
In Tennessee, we signed Pro Bowl back Eddie George to a lucrative, long-term deal after our Super Bowl season of 1999. I had little fear in supporting his deal as I knew he had been extremely durable, had a tremendous work ethic and was a team leader. George gained 4,644 yards over the next four seasons to make that deal a success for both player and team.
Obviously, it doesn't always work out that well. The Shaun Alexander case in Seattle was an ugly one for the team, as the 2005 MVP signed an eight-year deal in 2006 worth $62 million ($15 million guaranteed) and was never the same player as injuries and age (29 when he signed the deal) derailed him. It's interesting to note that Tim Ruskell was president and GM of the Seahawks at the time, and is now Player Personnel Director of the Bears. Think he may be reminding his GM about the dangers of big running back deals?
The good news for Forte and Rice is that they are 25 and 24, respectively, so they are young enough to play several more productive seasons. The question is when do all the carries, receptions and hits add up to the point of diminishing skills. Or, as the scouts say, when do they hit the wall? The fact that they are both excellent receivers out of the backfield as well as top runners should help their negotiating cause but ultimately, running backs are paid more for their ability to run the ball so if they run it effectively, it loosens things up for the passing game.
Watching and hoping for more big running back deals for Forte and Rice are the next wave of top young backs -- Houston's Arian Foster, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy and Oakland's Darren McFadden, among others. They'll soon feel the payday pains of the great NFL running back, if they haven't already. It's a fact of life in the NFL, now more than ever.