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The Enduring Allure of the Franchise Running Back

Long idolized in the football world, running backs have seen their market value dry up. How have the struggles of NFL stars influenced players at lower levels of the sport? And what does Todd Gurley’s recent contract mean to an entire generation of aspiring runners?

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Running is the past. Passing is the future. With completion percentages across the NFL continuing to rise, your average handoff seemed destined for the dustbin of inefficient history, nestled in between the midrange jumper and the sacrifice bunt. Yet, while their contracts have suffered, running backs are still here. So, welcome to … Running Back Day! We’re spending all day trying to answer the question of “What does it mean to be a running back in 2018?”

For as long as football has existed, running backs have occupied a special place in the sport’s imagination. As a kid growing up in the 1980s, Hall of Famer Terrell Davis watched all-time greats like Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson. Then he went and emulated them in the backyard. “Everything else evolved from the running back,” Davis says. “From a purist standpoint, it’s like watching somebody that’s almost like an artist.”

Dalvin Cook grew up venerating the position, too. Marshall Faulk was his favorite back, part of a storied lineage that included Payton and Barry Sanders. Now entering his second year in the NFL, Cook is honored to follow in their footsteps. “When you’re back there,” he says, “it feels like you’ve got the world on your shoulders.”

Even coaches treat the position as sacred. Running backs have always been asked to shift between speed and strength, grace and power. Payton and Jim Brown were all that football could be, rolled into a single player. “It’s what football is,” Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown says. “It’s the essence of the game.”

The enduring allure of the running back is why its recent downfall has been so jarring. Over the past five years, no position’s value has been adjudicated more often. Shortly after Adrian Peterson signed a $96 million contract in 2011 to become the highest-paid running back in league history, the market at the position cratered. No backs were taken in the first round of the 2013 or 2014 drafts. Contract negotiations for top runners stalled. This season, Seahawks rookie Rashaad Penny will make just over $1.9 million, the 32nd-highest cap hit among running backs. Pittsburgh punter Jordan Berry, who has the 32nd-highest cap hit among kickers and punters, will get the same amount.

The running back outlook reached its nadir when Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers failed to come to a long-term contract agreement for the second consecutive offseason in July. Pittsburgh reportedly offered its three-time Pro Bowler a five-year, $70 million deal … with just over $10 million in guarantees. Bell’s struggles cast a pall over backs everywhere. If a player who’d tallied more than 3,800 all-purpose yards over the past two seasons couldn’t get a worthy deal, there was little hope for anyone else. And if the league’s premier dual-threat back couldn’t find long-term financial security, it might be a sign that the league’s glamour position had been tarnished.

That looming fear is why players at every level of the sport breathed a collective sigh of relief on July 24. Todd Gurley and the Rams agreed to a four-year, $57.5 million extension with $45 million in guarantees. Perhaps the position wasn’t being marginalized—and at least momentarily, young runners weren’t dissuaded from chasing their backfield dreams. Maybe this was a sign that the running back, finally, is back. “It just had to be the right guys,” Cook says. “You’ve got guys like Zeke [Elliott], Todd, and Le’Veon. They set the bar. And they set the bar high. They’ve paved the way for us, and we’ve got to do it for the guys coming up”

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers
Le’Veon Bell
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Gurley doesn’t know why the market’s collapse began in the first place. “I don’t know how it even got like that,” he says. “I don’t think the [state of the] position ever decreased or devalued. We were always making plays. All of a sudden, people just said, ‘We don’t need running backs.’” Talk to those around the NFL, though—from players to decision-makers to agents—and they’ll point to three factors responsible for the tailspin.

The first is the shift in how the game is played. As passing has become the NFL standard, the demand for dominant backs has decreased. “I tell my guys, [run and pass] used to be a 50-50 split,” says Cadillac Williams, a 2005 first-round pick who now works as the running backs coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. “Now, it’s 60-40 [passing], sometimes even 65-35.” An uptick in throwing placed a premium on backs who could fill third-down receiving roles, and as more teams began creating piecemeal backfields composed of players with varied skill sets, fewer clubs were willing to pay top dollar for a single runner.

The second factor is the notion that the gap between high-priced backs and cheaper alternatives is considerably smaller than at other positions. In fact, skimping at running back has led to franchises acquiring elite options such as Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara. Jamaal Charles, who rushed for more than 7,500 yards and remains the position’s all-time leader in yards per carry, was taken 73rd overall in 2008. David Johnson was a third-round pick in 2015. Dion Lewis (149th overall) is arguably the most successful back from the 2011 class. Shelling out high draft picks or expensive free-agent contracts began to feel like team-building malpractice when players in the middle of the draft, on rookie deals totaling about $2 million over four years, were consistently proving to be comparable options.

Taking those financial risks grew even more dubious during what experts viewed as a dearth of premier talent in the years before Gurley and Melvin Gordon were snapped up in the 2015 first round. “When it comes to the devaluation of the position, the biggest issue is that there was a two- to three-year stretch where there weren’t many good ones coming out of college,” says Maurice Jones-Drew, a three-time Pro Bowl running back who now works as an analyst at NFL Network. “So when it comes time for those guys to get [big] second deals, there aren’t any.”

Results from the past five years align with Jones-Drew’s rationale. With players like Eddie Lacy, Montee Ball, Christine Michael, Bishop Sankey, and Jeremy Hill coming off the board early, the drafts between 2010 and 2014 were a wasteland of backfield talent. The clear exception is Bell, but even he had to drastically remake his game after coming to Pittsburgh from Michigan State to become the force he is today. “If you look at the draft, it’s basically a luck event,” Rams general manager Les Snead says. “Depending on what type of human beings were born in a certain range, whether they chose soccer, lacrosse, football, or basketball, they end up here.”

As all those variables facilitated the great running back falloff of the past decade, the effects trickled down to the high school level. Top backs from around the country watched as the market dried up and naturally began to wonder whether it was time to make a change. Playing running back had become a matter of staving off extinction, a reality that was no different for those just starting the process of climbing the ranks.

Los Angeles Chargers v New York Jets
Melvin Gordon
Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

IMG Academy head coach Kevin Wright was sitting in his office in June 2016 when a surprise visitor knocked on the door. Rising sophomore Noah Cain had traveled to Bradenton for IMG’s national 7-on-7 tournament, and used the trip to make an introduction. “He showed up out of nowhere—and he brought his résumé,” Wright says. “He said, ‘I want to come here, and I want to be the best running back I can be.’ He had done his homework.”

Cain emerged as one of the best young backs in America for Guyer High School in Denton, Texas, that fall, rushing for 1,683 yards with 22 touchdowns en route to being named the top back in 247Sports’ recruiting rankings for the 2019 class. That didn’t stop him from transferring to IMG when an offer came through. Cain knew that no matter how much success he could find at Guyer, his lack of receiving experience would hold him back. “For those guys that are thinking that far down the road … [it] says something about him,” Wright says.

Cain is now a senior at IMG and the no. 6 back in his class, per 247Sports’ latest rankings. He’s traded life as a 25-carry workhorse for a spot in a crowded backfield that also features the 2019 class’s consensus top back, Trey Sanders. To Cain, that sacrifice is worthwhile. He’s focused on maximizing his appeal. “I’ve definitely seen the conversations about not playing running back at the next level because you see the value decreasing, but as you can see, the past two or three years, it’s come back hot again,” Cain says. “They want complete backs, and that’s why we’re adding to our game.”

Some players saw the NFL’s declining running back value as inescapable. Former Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd, who started ahead of Kamara in Knoxville, transferred to Baylor and moved to receiver because of his lack of faith in the future of the position. For others, the pull of the running back fraternity was too strong to turn away.

Devyn Ford, a 2019 Penn State commit and the no. 4 back in his class, once broached the idea of moving positions because his father had encouraged it. After Ford’s sophomore season at North Stafford High School in Virginia, his father, Anthony, went to him with the idea of moving to receiver or defensive back. “I said, ‘Dad, my heart is with the running back position,’” Devyn says. “It’s hard for me to just go away from that.”

This fall, Ford expects to see steady work in the slot. The same goes for Sanders and Cain. Many high school programs have moved to offensive systems that more closely resemble those at higher levels. Part of the motivation is to keep current with the direction of the NFL; part of it is to turn the country’s best backs into the most multifaceted prospects possible, for both college football and beyond. “If you want to maximize your talent, the earlier you’re exposed to the elements you’ll see at the next level, the better,” Wright says. “Some guys are never asked to pass [protect]. Some guys never motion out of the backfield and know how to run two-man concepts and what coverages are. Ultimately, that’s what makes you a football player.”

For players in less progressive high schools, an outlet for pass catching still exists. Cain may not have caught many passes at Guyer, but got plenty of work as a receiver during his 7-on-7 experience beginning in sixth grade. Many top recruits start the AAU-like 7-on-7 circuit long before reaching high school. The result is a generation of running backs who have caught hundreds, if not thousands, more passes than their predecessors. “He’s such a natural ball catcher and a natural route runner,” Cadillac Williams says of the 214-pound Sanders. “He does so many things [well], you ask yourself, ‘Who taught this guy to run routes this way?’”

In Wright’s estimation, 7-on-7 culture took hold eight to 10 years ago. Since that development is fairly recent, it’s led to a discrepancy in pass-catching prowess among backs who are close in age. But even players who never delved into that world are further ahead than prospects a decade ago. At both Nike’s The Opening and Rivals’ 3 Stripe camps, Ford ran advanced option and choice routes normally reserved for backs at the NCAA’s highest level. The shift in the demands at the position have been drastic—and swift. When Williams was drafted fifth overall by Tampa Bay in 2005, he came into the NFL having caught 45 career passes at Auburn. Thirteen years later, 2018 no. 2 pick Saquon Barkley enters the league having made 54 receptions in his final season at Penn State alone. “When I see in the league these all-around receiving backs like Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, Devonta Freeman getting the ball in space, in another way, it makes me happy that I can do that, and that I’ve been working on it the whole time,” Ford says. “I don’t have to hop on the train and start to learn it.”

Knowing the skills required to break into the NFL made the negotiating roadblocks for stars even harder to reconcile. Last year, Williams’s IMG pupils routinely asked him why there was a diminished demand at their position. “These guys, they’re seeing Le’Veon Bell can’t get paid, and they’re like, ‘Coach, what’s up with that?’” From afar, Ford wondered the same. “It is [disappointing],” he says of Bell being hit with a second straight franchise tag. “The stature and value that Le’Veon Bell has, and what he produces on the field, why is it so hard for him to get a contract?”

Then came a glimmer of hope. “Todd Gurley,” Ford says, “the next week, gets a bigger contract than [Le’Veon] ever had.”

Los Angeles Rams v Tennessee Titan
Todd Gurley
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

When Snead, Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, and Gurley’s agent, Ari Nissim, began negotiations for an extension, they all understood that they were venturing into uncharted territory. “Because Le’Veon didn’t get a long-term deal, we were the rebels,” Snead says. “We were the pioneers blazing the trail. It becomes creative between ourselves, Todd, and Ari.”

A few relevant contract numbers served as reference points, but none were tied to current deals at the position. Before Gurley inked his contract, Freeman’s five-year, $41.3 million deal included the highest average annual value at the position. For Gurley, that price was a nonstarter. To Nissim and Roc Nation, Gurley occupied a different plane than any other back who’d recently signed long-term deals. Finding the right number became a matter of discerning Gurley’s value relative to all players around the league. “With [RB], it’s really just two letters in the alphabet,” Snead says. “Then there’s a subset of human beings that play running back. In Todd’s case, he’s the offensive MVP … so he’s not just a ‘running back.’ He’s not just an RB.”

In trying to decipher the proper price tag, two letters—RB—gave way to four: OPOY. Gurley’s status as the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year had a profound effect on the way the two sides discussed his value. Rather than getting bogged down in any one stat, the debate turned more theoretical.

Gurley’s workload as a receiver may have been limited during his first two NFL seasons under former head coach Jeff Fisher, but successor Sean McVay saw a player ready and willing to take on more responsibility. “Just seeing the stuff in OTAs [last year], you kind of got excited,” Gurley says. “Seeing guys like Chris Thompson and Matt Jones, what he was doing with those guys [in Washington]. You see the way the league has changed, becoming more of a passing league, and you want to get in on the fun.”

What makes Gurley so valuable is that he’s a 224-pounder who can occupy the same role, with the same effectiveness, as the 195-pound Thompson. With players like Gurley and Bell, the label third-down back becomes obsolete. These guys can stay on the field in any situation, and because they’re viewed as such rushing threats on early downs, passes in those scenarios become all the more effective. Bell tallied 38 of his 85 receptions on first down, the fifth-highest mark in the league. Gurley hauled in 26 catches on first down—41 percent of his total. On those plays, he averaged 12.7 yards per reception, a better first-down average than Larry Fitzgerald, Keenan Allen, and Michael Thomas. “He can run, and catch, and block for us, which allows Sean to do a lot more,” Snead says. “Because he can do all three things, [you have] less tendencies.”

There were two numbers that came to serve as the foundation of Gurley’s negotiation. “The anchor point was probably Le’Veon’s franchise tag, and then probably, which seems outdated, but the Adrian Peterson standard,” Snead says. “He’s more than just an RB. He’s Adrian Peterson.” Because Peterson’s deal was signed seven years ago, in an era with a different salary-cap structure, the percentage of the cap occupied by that contract, rather than the total, became a jumping-off point. Both sides reached figures they could live with: $57.5 million with $45 million in guarantees and an AAV of $14.4 million. All three are the highest in the league at the position, and with a four-year deal, Gurley is set to hit free agency again before age 30.

Snead knows the risk involved in giving a running back a paradigm-shifting contract. He also knows that special players like Gurley don’t come along often. “Human beings go to the Hall of Fame,” Snead says. “Positions don’t.”

When Gurley signed his deal, it was cause for running backs at every level to rejoice. High school stars saw reason to stay at the position. Cook saw a light at the end of his rookie contract. The trajectory of the narrative around the state of the running back changed. And based on results from the past few seasons, it seems like it may trend upward for years to come. “It feels good, to be able to be that guy, to set the bar high,” Gurley says. “One thing about the league, we love to see another guy get his payday. And I’m happy to be one of the guys on top.”

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