Rest In Peace, Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett – the singer, not the UVa basketball coach – died las week at age 96.  He was an infantryman in Europe in WW II, he sang duets with Pearl Bailey, Aretha Franklin and Lady Gaga and he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Famously, he left his heart in San Francisco.

Rest in peace, Tony Bennett.

One of the current sports refrains deals with the “devalued running backs” in the NFL.  Three RBs were saddled with a franchise tag over the off season meaning that they will make “only” $10.1M if they sign that offer and play in 2023.  Tony Pollard (Cowboys) signed his tag; Saquon Barkley (Giants) and Josh Jacobs (Raiders) have not signed, and both have threatened to sit out the 2023 season.  Lots of commentators have offered up opinions as to why this is the case and why teams are wrong in devaluing the position of running back.  I think the reason behind the devaluation comes down to elementary economics and I am not so sure that the idea of devaluating the position of “running back” is a bad idea.  Let me explain.

For the last 20 years or so, every time the NFL made a rule change, the new rule favored the offense.  In particular, many of those rule changes favored the passing portion of the offense.  Therefore, tight ends and wide receivers became bigger contributors to total offense thereby commanding higher prices as free agents.  The same dynamic applied to QBs who could reliably get the ball to those newly valued tight ends and wide receivers; so, wage demands for “elite” QBs skyrocketed.

At the same time, the NFL has a salary cap.  That salary cap brings into play a fundamental principle of economics:

  • You cannot spend the same dollar twice.

Another way to state that economic principle is that asset allocation in a system where assets are capped becomes a zero-sum game.

With rising costs for QBs and pass catchers, teams have had to make decisions about how to allocate the remaining dollars constrained by the cap limits.  So, let me go through one logic chain that leads to the conclusion that “running back” ought to be devalued as a position on an NFL team in 2023.  Please note, I am not saying this is the only way to think about roster structure or cap spending models; I am saying that maybe Barkley and Jacobs should think very hard about sitting out the 2023 season á la LeVeon Bell.

  • The added value placed on QBs means that it makes sense to invest resources in protecting QBs.  Hence, the percentage of cap money devoted to offensive tackles should be increased too.
  • Because opponents will likely seek to exploit the current rules that favor the passing game, defensive resources also must slant toward stopping the passing game as best one can.  Therefore, teams put a premium on “edge rushers” and “cover corners” – – to the detriment of inside linebackers and safeties by the way.
  • Punters should become more valuable under the new rules because when an offense is forced to turn over the ball, a punter who can reliably give his defense advantageous field position is important.  The defense is fighting an uphill battle to begin with; it can use all the help it can get.
  • So, since you cannot spend the same dollar twice and there is a limit on how many dollars one is allowed to spend, there needs to be diminished allocations for the other generic positions on the team such as interior defensive linemen (unless they excel at pass rushing), interior offensive linemen, kickers and running backs.

[Aside:  One of the best interior offensive linemen in the league, Zack Martin (Cowboys), is also unhappy with his contract and has declared that he is “underpaid”; Martin will make $13.5M in 2023.]

The running back position also suffers from a supply/demand problem.  The “devaluation” of the position means that teams will look for bargains in the marketplace rather than look for gaudy acquisitions.  That means teams can choose – – and have chosen – – from a plentiful supply of young, inexpensive running backs coming out of college every year.  The Chiefs’ leading rusher last year was Isiah Pacheco; he was a 7th round draft pick, and he signed a 4-year deal with the Chiefs in May 2022 for a total of $3.74M.

  • Is Isiah Pacheco as good or as productive as either Saquon Barkley or Josh Jacobs?  No.
  • Is Isiah Pacheco “good enough” for the Chiefs?  Well, the Chiefs are the defending Super Bowl champs, so the answer must be that he is.
  • Isiah Pacheco will make $870K in 2023; Barkley and Jacobs want more than $10.1M; are they worth 11.6 times more than Pacheco?  I don’t think so.

I am not an NFL GM, and I certainly would not assert that my reasoning here is the only smart way to come at this conundrum.  However, I do not think that I would be particularly motivated to accede to the contract demands made by either Barkley or Jacobs.  Late last week, Melvin Gordon was signed by the Ravens; his contract there is for 1 year at $2.5M.  Still out there on the market are veteran RBs including:

  • Dalvin Cook
  • Ezekiel Elliott
  • Leonard Fournette
  • Kareem Hunt

If NFL GMs take Gordon’s deal with the Ravens as any sort of benchmark for the “going price of a veteran RB”, Barkley and Jacobs are going to be more than frustrated with any sort of negotiations for a long-term deal with guaranteed money in the eight-figure range.

Finally, Andrew Brandt is a former assistant NFL GM, a lawyer, a former agent for athletes in various sports and – – you get the idea.  Someone posed a question to him on Twitter, and I want to close today with his response:

  • Q:  Now that Snyder is gone, who is the worst owner in the NFL, Bidwell?
  • A:  George Santos

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………