It began in high school. Maybe even earlier.
Running the football is a safe, predictable option for the lower levels of football. Turnovers are less likely; third downs become shorter and more easily attainable; positive signals like "establishing physical dominance" only juice up the run-first approach. Coaches control how many touches their elite athletes get with the ever-venerable handoff; and those elite athletes are accordingly funneled into RB positions, as it takes too much skill to play quarterback for the average high school team to dream of a pass-first offense.
In short: high school coaches are going to run the football. So they put their best athlete in the backfield, and in doing so, set him down a path of unrewarded punishment.
If the NFL game and high school game were the same, the running back wouldn't be condemned -- but they're not. The difference in quarterback play is more than enough to make the NFL an increasingly pass-first sport. That's not just a climbing line graph: that's as opposite a paradigm from the high school approach as can be, and accordingly, how players are valued at the NFL level stands in stark contrast to how they are valued in lower levels.
Veteran RB contracts betray this fact. Since 2011 (the furthest back Spotrac will take us), the top contracts given out to NFL running backs show a shaky, but clear decline in value through 2017. In 2018, the value of the Todd Gurley (14.4 APY) and David Johnson (13.3 APY) contracts both shoot the raw numbers back up a bit, which has led to the running back revival that some have predicted.
The issue comes when we compare top running back contracts to the ever-increasing cap space in the NFL, however. With increasingly more cap room since 2013 (~$55M), NFL teams have not put that money back into the running back market. Veteran contracts have steadily declined in terms of the percent of cap space they have taken up since 2012.
We can still see the blip in Top-5 contracts caused by the Gurley and Johnson deals, but when we expand to Top-10 veteran contracts, Gurley and DJ barely even move the needle.
While 2011 is the limit of Spotrac's data, it's also the year in which the new CBA was put into effect: namely, the rookie wage scale, which was implemented to protect NFL owners from pouring money into eventual busts.
With that new money to pour instead into veteran contracts, why do owners stay away from running backs? LeSean McCoy saw a $9M APY extension in 2011, lead the NFL in rushing in 2013, and when he next signed an extension with Buffalo in 2015, it was for a lower number ($8M APY). DeMarco Murray held the rushing crown in 2014, and signed a 2015 deal with Philadelphia for $8M APY; tied for only the 5th-highest APY figure among running backs that season. After three straight seasons of over 1,000 scrimmage yards, a 25-year-old Giovani Bernard signed a contract worth $5.2M APY in 2016; only four years early, a 27-year-old Matt Forte with four straight seasons over 1,000 signed a new deal worth over $2M/year more. And of course, Le'Veon Bell: the reports of the offers Bell received have varied, but nothing was enough for a two-time All-Pro player.
Protected from spending big on eventual busts, NFL cap managers now also shy from pouring money into worn, injury-prone, and replaceable players. Those descriptors apply to veterans generally -- but no more directly for any position than running back. ESPN Stats & Info holds that rushing yard production starts dropping off around age 27, which is about second-contract time for 22- or 23-year old rookies. Pro Football Logic showed that running backs get injured more frequently than other positions, and their injuries typically spell longer absences than those for other positions.
But are top-flight running backs really replaceable? It's a fervent debate nowadays. The fact remains that box count numbers better predict YPC success than, say, the career YPC number of the running back in question, which is a stat that remains generally unstable throughout a back's career. In the running game, you're better off winning with the alignment of your personnel than you are relying on the talent of the back you give the ball to.
Which brings us back to the high school coach, who took his most talented athlete and put him at running back.
While the data hasn't been crunched for high school play (at least to my knowledge), anecdotally we can argue that the drop-off between an elite NFL running back and a backup NFL running back is less significant than the drop-off between a top-flight high school athlete and an average high-school athlete. The production of a running back at the high school level likely belongs a very great deal to the skill of that specific running back, in that a future starred recruit and college player drastically outclasses that of his high-school opponent. While tenants like running backs benefitting from lighter boxes still hold, the relative strength of the replacement running back does not.
And so the elite athlete remains in the backfield, toiling between the tackles and chowing down on a feast of volume touches. Those raw numbers help him get on recruiting radars for colleges, but they also determine his path: in college, he'll step into a similar role, powering a rushing attack, receiving the lion's share of carries, delivering and receiving blow after blow between the tackles. He won't know that each blow costs him another thousand dollars, almost a decade down the road.
He'll be drafted at a premium for his dominance at the college level; potentially as a Round 1 player, but maybe later, because teams are already concerned about his injury history and high tread on his tires. With the new rookie wage scale, he will be cost controlled for three, maybe four, maybe even five seasons; and NFL teams will continue ringing the bell of their lead bull, paying less per carry with every handoff. They will squeeze as many carries as are left out of an already worn and tired player, fulfilling the very prophecy they wrote: that second-contract running backs are too used, too at-risk for injury to possibly extend at a significant figure.
And they will turn to James Connor; to Kareem Hunt; Jordan Howard; to Ezekiel Elliott. To younger, fresher runners who have dreamed of NFL success for years and finally taste it on their tongues. Voracious and emboldened behind powerful offensive lines, they rack up astounding numbers, fight for every yard. Yet to feel the sting of a season's attrition, the handicap of a nagging injury, they run full steam ahead into their own obsolescence.
The future of running back contracts does not belong Todd Gurley. Gurley, for his talent and his versatility, his growth and his transcendence over injury, is a blip on a radar. Just as NFL teams don't go mining in the sixth-round because that's where Tom Brady was drafted, so won't they suddenly begin doling out big contracts to bet on a young, elite runner.
The future earning of running backs in the NFL belongs, instead, to tomorrow's wide receivers, linebackers, and defensive tackles. To Myles Jack, a two-way high school player who, because of his obnoxious athleticism, played running back on offense and linebacker on defense -- and made it through UCLA as a defender drafted for his rare athleticism and coverage ability. To Jalen Hurd, the Tennessee-RB-turned-Baylor-WR who will enter the NFL Draft at a position that garners bigger contracts and less injuries. And even to Vita Vea, whose high school RB highlights went viral as he entered the 2018 NFL Draft as a 340-pound defensive tackle.
If running backs can't play well enough to garner big second contracts in the NFL, the only way to protect their future earnings is to make the pool of replacements as shallow as possible. Well, there is another way: you could hold out of a franchise tag to ensure, beyond a doubt, you won't get injured and screw yourself out of a second contract with long-term guaranteed money. That's the hill on which Le'Veon Bell currently stands: that unless a line in the sand was drawn, running backs would be unprotected from the NFL's toddler-esque treatment of rookies as new toys with which they could replace the older one they had beaten up and broken.
And for the elite high school athletes looking to protect their own future earnings, getting out of the running back position as quickly and as firmly as possible may seem a risk -- it's the position they've likely played for years. But with running back earnings in free fall, the only bet for a big payday is becoming the next Todd Gurley or David Johnson -- and that's as long of odds as you'll find.
After all, just being Le'Veon Bell didn't even cut the mustard.