The Curious Case of NFL owners vs Running Backs (somewhat) united

July 30, 2023

At the heart of it, it’s a labor dispute.

The night of Saturday July 22nd, several of the NFL top running backs held a zoom meeting. The news broke Sunday morning. 

On the labor side, it was organized by San Diego Chargers running back Austin Ekeler.

Representing the owners-Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.

By Wednesday night he fueled the fire, or settled things-it shall remain to be seen, via social media, where he wrote “NFL Running Back situation- We have negotiated a CBA,that took years of effort and hard work and compromise in good faith by both say now that a specific Player category wants another negotiation after the fact,is inappropriate. Some Agents are selling ‘bad faith’..”

Jim Irsay was in fact right by the letter of the law.  The owners are in fact working inside the parameters of an agreement, when for instance they don’t re-sign a top running back to big money despite production or in spite of injuries. The key here is longevity.

In general it appears that NFL owners feel no obligation to re-sign a running back based on past performance. They future proof their contracts. The next great one might just be a middle-round draft pick away. It’s a labor issue, but it could be a cultural issue in the eyes of some.

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But Irsay didn’t mind getting out in front of this for his billionaire brethren. It would seem, the reaction by fans and the media to the Saturday night running back zoom meeting was met with more humor than concern by both the media and fans.

Good training camp banter, nothing to be all that upset about.

Most sports owners, at least the socially aware ones, don’t want to get on the wrong side of an issue. It’s not a good place to be. Things happen quickly. It’s the environment they operate in. For instance, when Josh Allen purchased the Washington Commanders, his pitch to the media was about the Commanders being a great organization standing for things “changing the culture”.

“We’re focused on changing the culture,” Harris said per ESPN.  “It’s about creating a management team that doesn’t look the same. It’s about zero tolerance on ethically challenged behavior. When you own a sports team in a city, everyone looks at what you do.

“Everyone who works at the team … they’re a reflection on [the fans]. It’s all about culture. We’re very intentional about culture.”

Irsay didn’t mind going hardline on this issue.

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In Irsay’s case, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2021, Jonathan Taylo is his running back and is in the last year of his rookie deal that pays him about $4 million a year.  Taylor had a slower than normal 2022 in which his entire team struggled. He would like an extension. Irsay has flat out said no, he has to wait until his rookie contract ends at the end of the 2023 season. Taylor asked for a trade allegedly Irsay said we’re not trading him.

No doubt Irsay is in consultation with Colts general manager Chris Ballard on this one. The Colts aren’t worried about losing him. If he can bounce back and have a crazy 2023 maybe but the Colts aren’t expected to be very good this season. Taylor’s own productivity in 2023 may be dependent on the team around him which may not be very good.

He’s had offseason ankle surgery and has started training camp on the physically unable to perform list. In the minds of many Taylor has no leverage.

Where does the running back issue go from here?

Are owners forced to put a running back clause in the next collective bargaining agreement? Will there be holdouts? Holding out is the way running backs in the NFL handled these types of disputes in the past. Irsay went head to head with Hall of Fame Eric Dickerson in 1990 and even suspended him six games. 

At the time Irsay said of Dickerson “”He cannot be traded,” Irsay said. “And by the time he’s eligible to come back, the trade deadline will have passed.”

Sound familiar? Here’s what Irsay said about Taylor Saturday:

“We will not trade Jonathan Taylor,” Irsay said per ESPN. “That is a certainty. Not now or not in October.”

So this is not a new issue, but certainly it’s more pronounced in the pass heavy modern game. It’s been building- see Matt Forte’s case in 2011.

If it stays within the realm of a labor issue it’s probably going to fade into the distance. If it goes beyond a labor issue, the NFL might be forced to re-structure things in the next CBA or perhaps institute something type of special rule which governs how running back contracts are structured.

At the end of the day this is not an issue the NFL wants to just squash and move on. It’s been good summer training camp banter.

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