The 2018 NFL season saw premier running back Le’Veon Bell participate in exactly zero offensive plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Going into training camp, Bell made the decision to not play unless he got paid more money, while the Steelers made the decision to not give him this increased pay. As a result, he sat out the entire season until he eventually signed with the New York Jets for the coming 2019 season. Setting aside the good to come from this situation—James Conner played most snaps as the Pittsburgh running back last year and performed admirably—this strategy has spiked in popularity since then.
Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot are both holding out heading into this year’s training camp. Gordon is scheduled to make $5.6 million in the fifth year of his rookie contract, while Elliot would be making $3.85 million with an option for $9.1 million next year. There’s no denying that making any millions of dollars a year sounds enticing and some people would question why that is not enough for a player, but the more I looked into it, the more sense it made.
Career length in the NFL is at an all-time low with the average career length spanning just 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players Association. On top of that, running backs are always in prime position to get themselves hurt, leading to a wide variety of injuries. Todd Gurley, star running back for the Los Angeles Rams, had just 10 carries during Super Bowl 53 last February, earning just 35 yards. It wasn’t confirmed until after the fact that Gurley had arthritic symptoms in his knee. This is a terrifying idea to entertain for someone whose entire career depends on his ability to run. He plans to return to action this year, but there’s no telling how different he will be compared to last year.
This type of uncertainty is exactly why running backs specifically hold out for contracts. On the other hand, it’s also why running back contracts pale in comparison to those of quarterbacks. Owners simply don’t think the risk of a running back hurting themselves is worth spending the money the players want. This is entirely valid as well, as the running back position is generally the most volatile year-to-year. Every season, some players simply don’t produce how they used to, while others prove themselves to be breakout stars. In a league that is continuing a push towards pass-style offenses, are they really worth it?
Even if the players get their money’s worth, there’s no guarantee they will return as strong as they were before their holdout. It’s a loose comparison, but MLB closer Craig Kimbrel held out for a contract at the beginning of this year and didn’t get it until midway through the season. With the Chicago Cubs, he’s appeared in six games this season, pitching 5.2 total innings and allowing five runs. Those are not good statistics. It’s apparent that not playing for extended periods of time could have serious impact on the quality of their performance. How Bell performs after a full year of not playing is yet to be seen, but it’s not far-fetched to assume he will falter after holding out a full year.
Players deserve to hold out if they feel they are worth more than they’re getting, but they’re not free from the consequences of doing so. There’s a chance we won’t see Gordon or Elliot play at all this year, for better or for worse. In an ideal world, they will get what they want and perform like they have throughout their careers so far, but nothing’s a guarantee in the NFL.