Franchises investing less money in RBs
While QBs, CBs and other positions are commanding big bucks, RBs are going down in the salary scale.
Eddie George's release serves as a reminder how much running backs have been devalued in the new millennium.
This isn't just a Tennessee Titans thing. It's a league thing. A featured back is still among the six most important positions on a team. That hasn't changed. Try winning without an adequate running back. Nine of the 14 teams that didn't have a 1,000-yard runner didn't make the playoffs.
However, running backs are at the back end of this hierarchy. Because the window of greatness is so short for a featured back, even the marquee guys who sign those huge deals rarely get a chance to play out the contract. And the problem is that fewer and fewer backs are getting more than $4 million a year.
Mike Shanahan of the Broncos consistently has proven he can make 1,000-yard running backs with a great scheme, superior blocking and talented, non first-round runners. Look at the list: Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Clinton Portis. If all goes according to plan, watch for Quentin Griffin to be his new star.
The Patriots won two Super Bowls with Antowain Smith as the starting back. Unlike the Titans with George, the Patriots never pounded the 232-pound Smith into a defense more than 300 times a seasons. Smith averaged 18 carries a game during the Patriots first Super Bowl season and parlayed that into a $4 million a year contract. Last year, Smith had only 182 carries and a 3.5 yard average.
Though Smith and the Patriots won another Super Bowl, the Patriots watched Smith void his deal and sit until now to find a new job. They then took the roster vacancy and traded a second-round choice to Cincinnati for Corey Dillon, who didn't get a chance to finish his five-year, $26 million contract with the Bengals.
More and more, teams are becoming reluctant to invest heavily at halfback and two factors play significant roles in the decision making: age and cost. That's how cold the business decision came in Tennessee. Titans general manager Floyd Reese felt $2.5 million was all the Titans were willing to commit to George in base salary and a roster bonus.
George was willing to reduce his base salary from $4.25 million to $2.5 million. The breaking point for Reese was $3.5 million in combine money plus incentives was too much. Reese hoped George would remember the team gave him $14 million in signing bonus money. George stared at the cold numbers of today, and the Titans determined George was good enough for 300-plus carries this season, but he might not rush for more than 1,100 yards.
So, they said goodbye to a leader who never missed a game and wore down defenses. They will have to try the Patriots model with the signing of Antowain Smith and using Chris Brown and Robert Holcombe. To replace George, the Titans need three parts. But the $1 million difference in value of the position forced them to make a decision that could cost them a Super Bowl.
Where this hits hard for the Titans is they have weakened two of the six most important positions on the team -- defensive end and running back. No longer can they count on the double-digit sacks from Jevon Kearse. Young players have to fill the void. To further complicate things, they have to find ways to replace George's 20 carries a game.
Similar types of sacrifices are being made in backfields throughout the league. Look at recent drafts. Only 14 halfbacks have been selected in first rounds of the past five drafts. Only two -- LaDainian Tomlinson and Jamal Lewis -- went in the top 10. Each season, their spots in the first round fall. William Green went 16th in 2002. Willis McGahee went 23rd in 2003. Steven Jackson went 24th this spring. Except for Kevin Jones in Detroit, none of the first round backs of the past three drafts are guaranteed starters heading into this season.
After the season, the Colts have to choose between Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James for a contract extension. Unless James agrees to an undervalued contract, he will hit the open market next year. The Colts will pay top dollar to keep Harrison, and if they can't get a deal by March, they will franchise him. Top receivers tend to get the contracts more than the running backs. For the Colts, it would be impossible to pay $14 million for a quarterback, $7 million for a wide receiver and $5 million for a running back.
Here's the rationale. Receivers can be productive until their mid-30s or 40s, but running backs peak at the age of 28. Though conditioning allows them to go into their early 30s, NFL teams generally aren't willing to make big investments in them.
It was by no accident George was the Titan asked to take a paycut considering he turns 31 next month. Five other players in his age group on the team had contracts restructured at no loss in dollars. George wondered, "Why me and why so much?" The Titans felt there was a cutoff point to the price for a running back for 1,100 yards and less than a 3.5 yard average.
It's rare now to see big money given to backs after the age of 28. The Chiefs gave Priest Holmes a seven-year, $48 million deal at the age of 29 because he was the key to their offense and his off-field contributions. Management is also banking that his limited use early in his career will give him the longevity to last three or four more years.
The Steelers rewarded Jerome Bettis with a six-year, $24 million contract knowing he may not play the final three years of the deal. Bettis understood his situation and took a paycut to $1 million this year. He's 32.
No one is saying 30-year-old backs can't play. They can. At least seven 30-year-old backs will be on the field as starters when the regular season begins. George may get a $1 million-plus contract somewhere to be the eighth.
However, history shows backs tend to peak between the ages of 27 and 29. Curtis Martin gained 1,513 yards at the age of 28. George's best season was 1,509 in 2000 when he was 27. Barry Sanders had his 2,053-yard season when he was 29.
Following peaks can be valleys. If a back starts to slide after the age of 28-30, his value drops. Because running back is a position with the shortest lifespan for top productivity, teams make value judgement.
Running backs? You can't win without them, but more teams are willing to try.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Gleason accepts fired radio DJs' apologies
- Johnson: 'I've learned my lesson' from jail
- Sexuality a topic at NFL's Rookie Symposium
- LB Bishop says he's healthy, will visit Vikes