Jonathan Taylor and the Indianapolis Colts will have to keep living in the same house a little bit longer. One of the best running backs in the NFL, Taylor requested in July that the Colts trade him, after it became clear to Taylor that the team that had drafted him in 2020 would not give him a big-time contract extension. Taylor ran for a league-best 1,811 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2021 and, at just 24, wanted a guaranteed payday before he put more mileage on himself this season.
The Colts not only wouldn’t extend Taylor but were antagonistic in public about the idea. Owner Jim Irsay said Taylor could wash out of the league tomorrow (and that Irsay could die) and that nobody would miss him. The team eventually gave Taylor the go-ahead to find a trade for himself, but nothing came together by Tuesday, an unofficial deadline pegged to the NFL’s preseason roster cuts. Taylor will start the year on the league’s “physically unable to perform” list, a designation that could be either the result of an injury or an effort by Taylor and the Colts to lower the temperature between them while Taylor prepares for the year. Regardless, it means he can’t play in the season’s first four games, and what happens after that is anybody’s guess. (Taylor did not participate much in the Colts’ preseason workouts and might need more time to get ready to play.)
It’s awkward news for both the Colts and Taylor, whose divorce after the 2023 season looks likelier than ever. Indy is poised to start the year with an injured young star who won’t be around to help rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, and it’s not clear that the team will ever get the best version of Taylor again. For his part, Taylor has to stick around a place he would rather not be, without the contract he craves. In addition to leaving nobody with any closure, the Colts-vs.-Taylor saga might be the clearest window yet into the dystopian, potentially unfixable job market for NFL running backs.
Taylor is an absurd player. His 2021 season was one of the best ever. He fell off in 2022, when he was injured, but he’s still young. He doesn’t have to get back to his level of two years ago to be one of the best players in the NFL. It’s possible, but not likely, that he’s done being a really good NFL running back. But he may very well be done being a really good running back for the Colts, and wherever he plays in 2024, it might not be for the kind of money he’d prefer. One of the league’s best young players wanted a new deal from his employer, then wanted a trade, and got neither. The stalemate has everything to do with the position he plays, but there is something especially bleak about Taylor’s quixotic quest to get paid. The NFL has collectively devalued running backs before and will again, but the speed and decisiveness with which the league has brought back a negative verdict on this star tailback’s value is its own sort of grim.
The struggles of the NFL running back to get a good shake are so well documented at this point that it’s easy to beat the horse well past the point of death. Teams have withdrawn mostly, but not completely, from drafting running backs in the first round because they’ve realized they can find comparable production at a lower price later on. Teams have also mostly declined to give running backs big second contracts because most of the big ones in the past decade have worked out, from the teams’ perspective, somewhere between decent and disastrous. In the open free-agent market—which running backs don’t reach until they’ve taken four years of NFL tackles—megadeals are unavailable to running backs. (The biggest contractual guarantee one got this offseason was $13 million; compare that to top wide receiver Allen Lazard, who netted himself $22 million guaranteed. And that’s before considering enormous extensions for receivers like Tyreek Hill, who got $52.5 million a year earlier.) The value of the NFL’s franchise tag—a designation a team can apply to only one of its players each year—as calculated by averaging the league’s top handful of salaries at the position, is much lower for running backs than it is for any other position except for kickers and punters.
That’s just how the NFL is now, and with a regular-enough reason: The league has a union-negotiated salary cap. Teams work within that cap, and they’ve decided that the labor most worth compensating is not the labor that carries the ball. The modern NFL adage “Running backs don’t matter” isn’t true, but they do matter less than they did before NFL teams discovered the virtues of the forward pass in all of its glory. Still, every team typically employs three or four running backs. The problem is one of not importance but fungibility. That will never change until the NFL offense pendulum shifts from passing back to running, and that will never happen now that the genie is out of the bottle and the sport is more exciting to watch than ever.
There’s a tragedy to the running back position having met this fate: Running backs are so much of what has been cool about American football for its whole existence. There’s never been any individual season on a football field more impressive than what Barry Sanders did at Oklahoma State in 1988, or any individual, period, who could cut like Sanders could cut. There’s never been longevity through brutality like what Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith exemplified when they put up with 15 years apiece of getting tackled then claimed the NFL rushing record (first Payton, then Smith). It’s hard to imagine a fan base that ever loved any player more than Pittsburgh fans loved Jerome Bettis or Seattle fans loved Marshawn Lynch. There definitely has never been another play that looked quite like that one.
The best running backs are gods in a way that even the best quarterbacks are not. Tom Brady is Tom Brady, but standing near him is a less physically stirring experience than is seeing Derrick Henry in the flesh. Running backs are not built like the rest of us. They are not a reflection of the common man with more skill. As a mixture of size, strength, speed, and agility, they are rounding errors. To watch them relegated to such a low place in the NFL’s hierarchy, where even Jonathan goddamn Taylor cannot get a big extension from the team that drafted him, is the bummer of all roster management bummers. Imagine if baseball’s sabermetric shift over the past 20 years had determined that home run hitters like Barry Bonds and Aaron Judge simply weren’t as valuable as we’d once thought, and as a result, teams felt little need to compete for their services. Imagine if some of the most entertaining athletes, in any sport, were the ones teams figured out lacked individual value. Running backs are the ones living out that reality.
And running backs want to do something about this, but they lack good options. Some of them have kicked around the idea of a separate players union for running backs only, but that rapidly presents a problem: The wider NFL Players Association, which would be much more powerful, would be competing directly against running backs for salary, instead of advocating for them. Former NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth thinks the league should set aside a specific amount of bonus pay for running backs. Maybe—but will other players fight for it? The simplest thing that would help running backs would be a more lucrative rookie pay scale for players in their first four or five years in the league, when running backs get the ball a lot and their bodies take a particularly serious thrashing. But the league’s collective bargaining agreement isn’t up for change again until after 2030, and the owners will not give over anything easily. Market incentives being what they are, it adds up to an inevitability: Backs are screwed.
Taylor is the starkest example yet. His injuries over the past year are a complicating factor, but few running backs coming to the end of their rookie contracts have a perfect medical outlook. Taylor is a well-known player who is (or at least was) extremely popular among Colts fans. With a quarterback, Richardson, on a rookie contract for up to the next five years, the Colts have some long-term flexibility to pay top dollar for other players. If a marketable star who’s still on the right side of 25 and has already posted one of the best rushing seasons ever can’t get his team to extend his deal with a year left on it, in a situation like that, then what future tailback can? And if there’s nothing significant available to running backs on the free-agent market, then where is there hope? The institution of the running back will never die, but its pay scale already has. The Colts just buried it, and given a chance to revive it just a tad, 31 other teams instead chose to grab a shovel and add some more dirt to its grave.