Ameer Abdullah is a running back who hadn’t heard of the International Brotherhood of Professional Running Backs (IBOPRB) or the petition it recently filed with the National Labor Relations Board to create a separate union for NFL running backs.
“That’s an interesting take,” said the Vikings backup. “Any time a player’s interest is being protected, I’m always going to be on that side. Just me being biased a little bit. Any time there can be a change that’s going to help anybody that comes behind me, I’m for it. I’d just have to see the specifics before saying I’d support it or not.”
The IBOPRB argues that the current one-size-fits-all approach under the NFL Players’ Association is unfair and “economically harmful” to running backs, who typically absorb more physical punishment, have shorter careers on average and essentially are further past their prime before they negotiate their second contracts.
“Being a running back, of course I do understand the shelf life is different for us,” said Abdullah, a second-round draft pick of the Lions in 2015. “I don’t want to call it luck, but I would say we are in more situations where one play changes or ends our careers. Look at Bo Jackson years ago. You looked at him and you’d have thought his shelf life would be forever. But it only took one play to end even his career.”
According to the Detroit News, the average annual salary of a running back in 2018 was $1.291 million. When compared to every other position, only long snappers ranked below running backs.
A year ago, Le’Veon Bell was scheduled to be the highest-paid running back in football at $14.5 million. But he balked at the Steelers’ one-year franchise tag, forgoing weekly checks of $855,000 until he made nothing while missing an entire season at age 26. He entered free agency and signed a four-year deal with the Jets that guarantees him $27 million.
This year, two more star running backs — Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon — are holding out because they’re fearful of being used up and discarded and/or discounted at the end of their rookie contract.
There are examples to which they can point. In 2014, the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray won the rushing title with 1,845 yards. Two months later, he was shown the exit.
A year ago, then-Vikings running back Latavius Murray accepted a $1.75 million pay cut. At $4 million, he was the 17th-highest-paid running back in the league. At every other nonspecialist position except fullback and left guard, the 17th-highest-paid player was earning more than Murray. And, at the time, the 17th-highest-paid quarterback was then-Cardinals backup Sam Bradford at $20 million.
“Running back, I feel, is the most physical position on the field,” Murray said last season. “We’re protecting the quarterback. … We’re getting hit on every run. We’re catching the ball. The fact we do everything is one of the reasons I feel the league underappreciates the running back.”
The IBOPRB faces an uphill battle against the NFL and the NFLPA, both of which will fight the petition. The IBOPRB also would have to convince running backs to break from the NFLPA.
Meanwhile, teams and running backs continue their efforts to establish workloads that walk the fine line between optimal production and preservation. That’s especially true of the Vikings, whose potential breakout star runner, Dalvin Cook, has missed 19 of 34 games because of injuries.
Last year, as he was coming off a torn ACL from 2017, Cook played only four preseason snaps with two touches, all in Week 3. This year, for precautionary reasons, he’s already sat out last week’s preseason opener and could be held out again Sunday night against Seattle.
Coach Mike Zimmer was asked Friday if there is any other position group that requires such careful attention when it comes to snap counts.
“Not typically,” he said, “unless it’s an older guy.”