Perspective | NFL running backs can’t beat the system, so they need to change the game

The traditional running back has moved to the margins, sequestered from the risky and excessive millions he once enjoyed. If Saquon Barkley, with his cartoon quads and outsize impact on the New York Giants, is having this much trouble rising above his injury concerns, pray for the next guy trying to break this tackle.

Barkley, a marvelous talent once perceived as most likely to challenge the wicked system, settled Tuesday. Deep into the 11th hour of the offseason, he decided to play the game rather than defy it, agreeing to terms with the Giants on a one-year contract with incentives that could enhance his pay to $11 million, a slight bump from the $10.09 million franchise tag offer he declined to sign. The war for tailback respect will have to wait. Or maybe Josh Jacobs, the Las Vegas Raiders star who remains disgruntled enough to miss training camp time, will fight alone.

What now? Even Barkley and his peers don’t know. After a recent Zoom meeting in which running backs commiserated about their shrinking market, Cleveland Browns star Nick Chubb admitted to reporters, “Right now, there’s really nothing we can do.” It’s a problem years in the making, intensifying because running back injuries keep increasing and longevity of elite play at the position keeps shrinking in a game that gets faster and more violent every year. It’s smart business for teams to avoid committing too much to players who don’t age well. But it’s also unfair that the NFL, with its rookie contract wage scale, puts severe restrictions on the earning potential of running backs when they are healthiest, only to deny the best of them top-of-the-market money in their second contracts after they grossly outperformed their initial deals.

But there’s something Barkley and his fellow collision magnets can do: evolve and watch this pass-happy era level off. It’s a misnomer, this general belief that the running back has lost value. There needs to be qualifiers. The bell cow, the bruising back who will carry the ball 300 times a season and wrestle defenses into a fourth-quarter submission, is nearing extinction. There will be just a couple of those tailbacks every decade — and even fewer teams willing to play a brand of football amenable to their style — and they had better be as big as the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Derrick Henry. But the importance of the run game is already in recovery as offenses adjust to defenses that have tailored their personnel to play better in space.

It creates an opening for the maligned position to regain some appreciation. But if the players don’t flaunt their versatility, teams will be even more merciless about overusing them on power run plays while they’re on cheap deals.

In this exclusive playground of multimillionaires, it’s easy to dismiss complaints. But running backs aren’t merely flying first class and complaining the wine is mediocre. The context matters. In any sport, the most desirable players are productive stars early in their prime. Except if you’re a running back. Barkley is 26 years old, and as a potent runner and receiver, he already has amassed 6,069 yards from scrimmage and 37 touchdowns in his career. But the fact that he has touched the football 1,201 times and missed 22 games over five seasons because of injury means more than his performance.

So the blossoming era of the running back-wide receiver hybrid needs to make a massive impact as soon as possible.

Athletic evolution is dictating this shift in the same manner it altered the role of the NBA center. Size doesn’t determine what you are in sports anymore. Skill does. Lines have blurred at many positions already: outside linebacker and safety; wide receiver and tight end; defensive end and tackle; defensive end and linebacker. There are faint attempts to erase the mark dividing running back and wide receiver — a Deebo Samuel here, a Christian McCaffrey there.

Interestingly, after the San Francisco 49ers traded for McCaffrey last season and put him with Samuel and all their versatile talent, they turned into an almost unbeatable machine that quarterback Brock Purdy, the 262nd overall pick of the 2022 draft, could command. It would mean much to offensive innovation if the 49ers won the Super Bowl with an offense built around unorthodox star power.

Still, we’re still waiting for an explosion of undefinable offensive weapons. It makes the trajectory of two multipurpose rookie running backs a storyline to watch this season. Because of recent draft history, it was a mild surprise in April when running backs Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs were selected among the first 12 picks. Robinson went eighth overall to the Atlanta Falcons. The Detroit Lions grabbed Gibbs at No. 12, giving lauded offensive coordinator Ben Johnson an explosive new toy.

While Robinson and Gibbs are different, they share a prominent trait. They are convertibles. Texas Coach Steve Sarkisian declared before the draft that Robinson had the ability to play slot receiver. The Falcons are experimenting with using him at multiple positions. On a loaded Alabama squad, Gibbs functioned mostly as a running back, but Johnson has expressed plans to line him up at receiver, too.

If successful, these players would differ from Barkley, an athletic freak who is a great receiver for a running back. They would differ from McCaffrey, a wideout’s son who already has four seasons of at least 80 receptions. With his soft hands and smooth route running, McCaffrey is the second coming of Marshall Faulk. But he’s a running back doing double duty, and he had to fight through injury-wrecked seasons in 2020 and 2021 and a trade before returning to form.

There’s a chance that Robinson and Gibbs could be the truest combination, catching more passes down the field and lining up anywhere on any given play. As the sport changes, with more sophisticated passing games and players who are taught to be versatile at early ages, perhaps they will signal the next phase of running back versatility. Instead of a bunch of eight-yard catches, they have the potential to go for 12 and 15 yards every reception. They could be safety valves and explosive play generators. If they did that with consistency and good health and modeled a new standard, the trickle-down effect would be tremendous for their position.

The fight over how to label them would be epic. Perhaps they could borrow from the term Samuel coined. When asked once what position he plays, Samuel said “wide back” meaning “a wide receiver playing running back.” At times, Samuel has seemed frustrated with the punishment he has taken, and he had a contentious contract dispute a year ago.

But the system eventually rewarded him with a three-year extension worth more than $71 million. His own lane is a profitable one.

Maybe there’s really nothing the running back can do. But the athlete can adapt.

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