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Nerds are not the reason Running Backs are underpaid

They are underpaid because of the fundamental rules of football. Stop blaming us.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Miami Dolphins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Florio (I know, I know) recently published this post on the plight of running backs that contains this quote.

“As the source added: “Blame Mike Shanahan and the analytics community.”’

As a member of the analytics community, I’m getting a bit sick of this. Yes, we do ourselves no favors by, for instance, naming an analytics site, which stands for “Running Backs Don’t Matter.” Yes, nerds often view themselves as Cassandras, trying to spread their wisdom to a world unwilling to hear it, which makes us off-putting and annoying. All true.

But the analytics community doesn’t deserve blame here. “Blame” should be reserved for the causes of problems. In this instance, nerds (and Mike Shanahan) are merely the discoverers of truth. The fact is that running the ball has, in the modern NFL, always been less efficient than passing. In the 1984 season, the two highest scoring teams were Dan Marino’s Dolphins and Joe Montana’s Super Bowl Champion 49ers. They also led the league in Net Yards per Pass Attempt. That was 40 years ago!

Football doesn’t always make quick progress and old ideas die hard, but even in football, winning trumps everything else and the fact is that teams that invest less in running backs are fine, and often much better, than teams that do invest heavily in the position. The quality of a running back has basically no correlation with winning games, and even if you’re not a big, huge nerd, it’s pretty simple to watch the Barry Sanders Lions and wonder why they never won anything. Or the Adrian Peterson Vikings, who went 10-6, and finished tied for second place, in a year where Peterson rushed for over 2,000 yards and won the MVP award. The Packers finished first in the division that year, led by running backs Alex Green, Cedric Benson, and Super Bowl champion James Starks.

The problem for running backs is much larger than the salary cap or the rookie wage scale. The problem for running backs is the actual rules of football. It’s also not an unusual problem! In fact, it is the norm for certain roles in sports to be less valuable than other roles.

In the early 2000s, Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen were once paid roughly the same amount of money by the Milwaukee Bucks, and if anything, Robinson made more based on his (at the time) record-setting rookie deal. In the modern NBA, however, Allen’s elite 3-point shooting would make him far more valuable than Big Dog. Relief pitchers in baseball make less than starting pitchers. In fact, in baseball, two players who hit at roughly the same level may make vastly different sums of money if one of them can handle the more valuable shortstop position while the other tops out as a first baseman.

This is, perhaps, the best way to look at running backs. If you want to make the most money in football, play quarterback. If you can’t, play wide receiver or defensive back. If you can’t play anything else, maybe running back is for you.

The NFL could, if it wanted to, change the rules to make running more valuable relative to passing. They could go back to pre-1978 illegal contact and holding rules. They could increase the points you score on a rushing touchdown relative to a passing touchdown. (It is no coincidence that many fantasy football leagues set passing touchdowns for quarterbacks at four points instead of six.) But none of this will happen — first of all, these ideas seem ridiculous, but more than anything, they would reduce scoring. They would make defense easier. The NFL hates that.

Running needs to be a part of the game as there is a balance between running and passing. If a team passes all the time, defenses will play exclusively to stop the pass, and they will succeed in doing so. But running is really just the counterbalance to passing, and outside of short yardage plays, running mostly exists in service of the passing game. And it’s no surprise that many of the consensus best backs, including Christian McCaffrey, are as adept in the passing game as they are in the running game.

Nerds are not to blame for this at all. Coaches and their relentless pursuit of winning are the primary reason running backs aren’t paid as well as other positions. It’s a league with a hard salary cap, and investing your finite resources in other positions works. Shortening rookie contracts or changing the rookie scale might help a little, by allowing backs to reach free agency before they’re washed up, but it really wouldn’t help much. College is still supplying plenty of new backs every year, and the relative importance of the position would remain unchanged. This problem is fundamental to modern football, and it cannot be solved without changing how modern football is played.

If you like running the ball, your best bet might be rugby.