Many of the league’s best running backs keep being told they’re replaceable during contract negotiations, being franchise tagged and given one-year deals. But those teams keep using those backs like they’re not.
I understand the thinking, to some extent, that running backs aren’t that valuable because they wear out quickly and that the next best one is probably 80 percent as good for a 10th the cost, but it seems like these elite running backs are the ones teams are consistently relying on to save them.
Saquon Barkley was one of several of the league’s best running backs that were free agents this past season. Instead of getting a multi-year deal, he was franchise tagged in March, ultimately signing in July.
This past Sunday, in the one of the least watchable game of my lifetime, the Giants couldn’t wrap their heads around the enigma that is the forward pass, so they handed the ball off to Barkley 36 times against the Jets. And the funny thing is, it kind of worked. The Giants weren’t exactly rolling, but it’s hard to be effective when everyone in the stadium knows who’s getting the ball.
Still, they were in position to win. ESPN’s gamecast gave them a 99.9% chance to win after the Jets called their second timeout with 1:19 left in the 4th quarter. Then, the rest of the team blew it for them anyway. The Giants missed a 35-yard field goal, which would’ve made it a six-point game. Then the defense gave up consecutive 29-yard plays. The Jets were able to go from their own 25-yard line to field goal range in 24 seconds and force OT.
The Giants got the ball first in OT and were forced to punt after Tommy DeVito targeted Barkley on four consecutive pass attempts (one was not an official play after an offensive holding penalty). The Jets were able to kick another field goal to win it.
Barkley did an overwhelming majority of the work in that game and was the guy the Giants turned to when it mattered most. Yet, somehow Barkley was deemed not worthy of a big contract because he’s a running back. If it is in fact true that the next best running back is basically as good, that it’s just a matter of having a body out there to take the hits, then why not share the load? Two other skill position players for the Giants combined for seven carries, including the other running back on the roster, Matt Breida, had five carries.
But maybe this is an outlier. The Giants had to run the ball a lot because they were playing with backup quarterbacks. Because, you know, when Daniel Jones plays, everyone knows it’s in the bag. Barkley can just kick up his feet and watch the maestro go to work.
Josh Jacobs is another one of the league’s best running backs who was seeking a big contract in the offseason. The Raiders initially placed their franchise tag on him before signing him to a one-year deal.
Because Jacobs wasn’t worthy of a long-term contract, and might be near the end of his rope in his sixth year in the league, the Raiders have spent this rebuilding season spreading the wealth to other backs on rookie contracts so they can see what they have for next year . . .
Well, not actually.
Jacobs is third in the league in touches with 161, which is more than 20 per game. He has 74 percent of the team’s carries. Taking out carries by quarterbacks Jimmy Garappolo, Brian Hoyer and Aiden O’Connell, which were surely almost entirely scrambles on passing plays that ended with them either sliding or trotting out of bounds, Jacobs has 86 percent of the remaining carries. Not to mention, he’s third on the team in receptions. This is all while there are three other running backs on the roster.
Granted, Jacobs hasn’t been terribly effective this season, averaging 3.1 yards per carry, but I think that’s in large part because, like Saquon this past weekend, everyone knows who’s getting the ball.
In their week 2 game against the Bills, the Raiders leading rusher was Tre Tucker, a rookie wide receiver, who got all 34 of his yards on a jet sweep with 13:03 remaining in the first quarter. He didn’t get another touch until week 5. Do you think it might help free up Jacobs a little if the defense had to start worrying about other players. Tucker had 50 yards on his first two touches, but it took more than a month to get those two touches.
NFL teams insist on working their premier backs into the ground, almost refusing to give second- or third-string backs touches. But when it comes time to pay them, they plead that they’re all just as good.
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