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Whitlock: Nick Chubb injury highlights the financial peril of playing running back in the NFL
Lauren Leigh Bacho / Contributor | Getty Images

Whitlock: Nick Chubb injury highlights the financial peril of playing running back in the NFL

Fixing the NFL’s running back problem should be a top priority for Lloyd Howell, the new leader of the NFL Players Association.

I doubt he’ll fix it. NFL running backs are like black-on-black crime victims. No one really cares. The problem is paid public lip service, but there are no meaningful efforts to solve the diminishing value of the players and the position that carried professional football for 70 years.

I bring this up because of the gruesome knee injury Nick Chubb suffered Monday night. The Cleveland Browns running back appeared to tear every ligament on a routine running play against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The contortion of Chubb’s knee was so gross that ESPN appropriately chose not to show a replay of the injury.

At age 27 and six years into his career, Chubb is likely finished as a high-profile, high-earning running back. What little future contract leverage Chubb had disappeared Monday night.

NFL running backs are the most disposable players in a league known for its short career spans. Over the past decade, as the salaries of every other NFL position group have skyrocketed, the contract market for running backs has dried up.

Every off-season is filled with contract drama for some high-profile running back. Five years ago, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire season, forcing a trade to the New York Jets. He didn’t really improve his contract leverage. He sat out and recorded rap songs that didn’t generate much revenue.

This past off-season, Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor starred in the nastiest contract dispute. He publicly feuded with owner Jim Irsay. Taylor entered training camp complaining of back problems. He’s going to miss the first four games of the season.

This week, the NFL filed a grievance against the NFLPA, claiming that the players' union has advised running backs to fake injuries to improve their contract leverage.

Conventional wisdom driving teams is that a team can draft a new rookie to play running back rather than give a veteran player a lucrative, long-term contract. Every other position in the NFL dreams of landing a record-setting second or third contract. Running backs have their highest value on draft night. The problem is rookie contracts are tightly controlled by a wage scale.

The NFLPA, under the boneheaded direction of former executive director DeMaurice Smith, pushed for the rookie wage scale.

But the problems for NFL running backs run deeper than the wage limitations. In a league determined to institute safety protections for every player, running back is the least protected position in football.

You can still hit an NFL running back in virtually any way imaginable. The league has implemented rules regulating where and when you can hit quarterbacks, receivers, long snappers, kickers, special teams players, and even defensive players. You can pretty much have your way with running backs. Defenders can lower their helmets and knock a running back into the middle of next week. No one cares. You have to ask permission to hit a quarterback.

The most violent position on the football field is running back. The guys taking pay cuts are taking all the big hits. Should we be surprised that Chubb and J.K. Dobbins (Achilles) are done for the season? Saquon Barkley will miss several weeks. Austin Ekeler, Aaron Jones, and David Montgomery are banged up.

Jim Thorpe, Bronko Nagurski, Steve Van Buren, Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Gale Sayers, and Walter Payton built professional football’s popularity. They were the game’s biggest stars. In the 1970s, Simpson and Payton were the highest-paid players. Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, and Marshall Faulk carried the torch.

It was commonplace for NFL running backs to buy expensive gifts for their offensive linemen. In the new, kinder, gentler NFL, left tackles can now buy expensive gifts for running backs.

It’s weird. It doesn’t seem fair. Running backs take the same risks as before but get far less respect and value for doing it. Yes, they run the ball less often. But the hits dished out and taken in pass protection and/or as a receiver mean they’re taking the same beating.

Running backs have a legit gripe. Lloyd Howell should address it beyond advising the backs to fake injuries.

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