It was Thursday Night Football and the Jacksonville Jaguars had the chance to knock off their mortal enemy, the Indianapolis Colts – not just for single game but for a chance at history. The Colts were 13-0 and were just three games away from an undefeated season; I, on the other hand, flew home after school had ended for the quarter, with just one day left to find tickets. The time was 2:30am, and my eyes were ready to give up. The ticket supply had been low all night and the ticket prices kept going up. I was just about to go to bed, when something caught my eye. A $10 bid for two tickets with just a few minutes left? I couldn’t help but be surprised. My eyes perked up and my hands got to typing… my mind got to wishing that everyone up was busy skyping. The time ticked down to less than a minute, and my whole body was ready to win it. “Oh no!” I cried, as I saw the price jump. Somebody had kicked my bid in the rump! But too soon, he bid – at his price it didn’t end. With just two seconds left, I did a price amend. When the clock hit zero, I couldn’t believe I’d seen… I got two tickets for just 26 green.
$26 dollars for two 100s level seats? I couldn’t believe it. I thought I had found the best deal in sports. But I was wrong.
The best deal in sports is had by NFL teams, not their fans. It’s had by teams like the Jaguars, who’ve gotten an average of 1800 yards/year for the last three years by MJD and will have him under contract next year for 4.5 million not-so-big ones. It’s had by teams like the Ravens and the Bears, who have been churning out offense and wins because of the legs of Ray Rice and Matt Forte, and now that those two are looking for new contracts, the Ravens and Bears are hiding behind the franchise tag. Even teams like the Titans that have supposedly “grossly overpaid” their running backs are getting a decent return off their investment.
Let me run some numbers by you. Do you know what the most expensive commodity in the world is? It’s an NFL yard. Two years ago, during the uncapped year, the Redskins spent $178.2 million for 5,374 yards of offense. The Tampa Bay Bucs, the best value team in the NFL that year, spent $80.8 million for 5,362 yards of offense. Now, I know the expenditure numbers refers to the money spent on all players, not just offensive players that see the field, and I also know that yards aren’t the ultimate measuring stick of an NFL team (for statistical purposes, probably points; in real life, probably wins/championships). But all players contribute directly or indirectly to the amount of yards a team can accumulate, and even if you want to argue with me about specifics, the premise that NFL teams spend an inordinate amount of money on NFL yards still holds – the Bucs spent over $15,000/yd… and the Redskins? Over $30,000/yd.
For the average NFL team, about 1/3 of their yards come from the running game (117 yards) and 2/3 of them come from the passing game (230 yards). Now, there are many players that have a role in the number of yards an offense gains. The linemen, of course, have a huge influence on both running and passing yards. The blocking tight end has a big influence on both, and blocking receivers have an influence on running yards while blocking running backs have an influence on passing yards. For the most part, the other players that have an effect on passing yards and running yards balance out. The main differences are at the skill positions – the QBs, the WRs, and the RBs. Now, given that a team usually passes for about twice as much as they rush, a passing yard should be worth about twice as much, monetarily. However, there are twice as many skill players directly involved in gaining a passing yard (the QB and the WR), while there’s only one skill player directly involved in gaining a rushing yard (QB hand offs are not a skill). Thus, since the passing yards should be divided amongst two players, for the average NFL team, QBs, RBs, and WRs contribute about equally to the amount of yards their offense gains.
By this reasoning, shouldn’t NFL QBs, RBs, and WRs be paid about equally? If not the average QB/RB/WR, how about the top QBs/RBs/WRs? Does anyone think they are paid equally? In case you do, I’ll save you the embarrassment of speaking up and saying so. They don’t.
Let’s take a look see at the case of Peyton Manning. Manning, coming off of a career year in 2010, signed an extension that made him the NFL’s highest paid player – an extension that paid him $23 million in 2011. Manning’s trailing three year passing yards/season average was 4,401 before that extension. The Colts chose to pay Manning about $5,200 per yard gained. Now, let’s look at our boy MJD. His trailing three year total yards/season average is 1,795. Using his $4.5 million salary for the season, the Jaguars are paying him about $2,500 per yard gained.
* Note, I am using the salaries for the upcoming season as the comparison because those are the only salaries that are more or less guaranteed. As we’ve seen with plenty of the “big”, back-loaded deals players have signed recently, it would be foolish to consider those last few years as income the player is guaranteed to get.
But you know what, MJD isn’t a perfect comparison obviously, since he thinks his contract is no longer fair. Let’s take Arian Foster, as an example. After this past season, Arian Foster inked an extension that would pay him a guaranteed $9 million next season. Arian Foster’s trailing two year total yards/season average is 2,242 yards/season. Thus, this extension that Foster signed this year is paying him about $4,000 per yard gained, which is an absolute steal in terms of production and potential for growth, considering the amount the Colts agreed to pay Manning. Let’s look at another big money back. After holding out last year, Titans RB Chris Johnson agreed to an extension that would pay him $8 million in 2011. Using his three year trailing total yards/season average of 1869 yards/season, Johnson fought tooth and nail for an extension that paid him $4,292 per yard, almost $1000/yard cheaper than Manning. Even after holding out, being overweight in camp, and having a season that was inarguably underwhelming, Johnson made $5,460 per yard, only slightly more than Peyton did – and it was his worst season ever.
Some people might argue that QBs are usually the faces of their franchise and therefore must be paid “a little” more. But that argument doesn’t really hold true here. Comparing RB pay to WR pay is even more preposterous. Take the situation of Larry Fitzgerald, a receiver almost everyone would say is worth his contract. He signed an extension before 2011 that would pay him $11 million the following season. Taking into account his trailing three year yards/season average of 1220 yards/season, the Cardinals agreed to pay him over $9,000 per yard!
Of all the running backs in the NFL, only Adrian Peterson has a contract that matches Peyton Manning in terms of dollars/production ($6,000/yd). And therein lies the problem, according to NFL GMs. They would say something like, “We’re not in the business of paying for past production. We’re in the business of paying for future production, like in any business.” But that’s an argument you only hear with regards to older players and running backs. Did the Colts have a problem paying for past production when they inked Manning to a huge deal at 34 years old? There’s no way they honestly thought he was going to get better than he already was. At best, they were hoping that his production wouldn’t decline too much for the next few years. Let’s compare this to Arian Foster or Chris Johnson. At 25 years each and having only played two and three years in the league respectively when they signed their extensions, they certainly had the potential to get better. But they didn’t get paid anywhere close to the way Manning did.
The league overhauled its rookie wage scale recently, signifying that NFL teams were sick of overpaying for potential. But, they also don’t want to pay for past production. If there were a way for all players to get paid equitably, then they could have it both ways, but at this point it’s not equitable at all – RBs are getting downright screwed.
The problem with the system is two-fold. The first, and the elephant in the blog, is the short shelf life for running backs. It truly is about 5 years at an elite level, tops. The second problem is the introduction of the rookie wage scale and removal of early big money contracts. Running backs are easily the most NFL-ready of the three major offensive skills positions coming out of college. Thus, RBs are screwed twice during their careers – first, because they come into the league producing while being paid the same as a rookie QB or WR that rides the bench, and second, because they have a short shelf life, so by the time their rookie contract is over, teams get very worried or pretend to get very worried about giving the RB a decent contract.
When it comes down to the facts, the NFL reimbursement system needs an overhaul in the favor of RBs. How should this be done? I don’t know, but I have some ideas. How about a more performance-based rookie wage scale for all players, not just running backs? How about shorter rookie contracts for running backs?
I know people say you can find a running back anywhere in the draft, but at the end of the day, haven’t the top NFL RBs been the top NFL RBs for the last few years? Regardless of where they’ve been picked, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, and Maurice Jones-Drew have all been elite by NFL standards since they’ve become full-time starters. In the last two years, Foster and McCoy have joined them. Of these five, four of them have gotten paid. How about a front-loaded 4-year extension to pay the fifth one?
(115% of the $9 million left on his contract, plus two $7.7 million franchise tags ought to do it, don’t you think? This would come out to a 4 year extension worth $28 million, front-loaded to make the next two year at $8.5 million/yr and the last two at $5.5 million/yr + performance-based incentives. Send me your thoughts in the comments or via email!)
Tags: Adrian Peterson Arian Foster Arizona Cardinals Baltimore Ravens Chicago Bears Chris Johnson Indianpolis Colts Jacksonvile Jaguars John Harbaugh Lesean Mccoy Matt Forte Maurice Jones-drew Ozzie Newsome Peyton Manning Ray Rice Super Bowl Tennessee Titans Washington Redskins