One of the controversies in the runup to this NFL season has come from the league’s running backs who have criticized how contract negotiations between teams and the league’s top rushers have been going. For example, Saquon Barkley, Tony Pollard and Josh Jacobs have failed to negotiate extensions to their contracts. Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott were cut and signed for reduced numbers by new teams. Joe Mixon and Aaron Jones took pay cuts to avoid being released.
Another one of the unhappy running backs who believes his team undervalues him is Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts. Arguably the finest football player on his team, Taylor is under contract but sees which way the wind is blowing and told his employers he wanted out and demanded to be traded.
The Colts are obliging him and looking for a landing spot, and several teams have emerged as suitors for Taylor’s particular set of skills. That Taylor believes in himself and his marketability is evident in a Tweet he posted in July:
I want to agree with everything Taylor is saying and love the fact he places a high value on himself and his skills. But I have to suggest that Taylor is overlooking something inescapable if unfair: whether or not we want to admit it we are all irreplaceable. And the sooner we realize this and conduct our affairs and build our careers accordingly, the better off we’ll be.
I really do feel the running backs’ pain. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I worked at Sports Illustrated, which meant I was good enough at my trade to work for the best of the best. Much like an NFL player who is a top performer on his team, a Sports Illustrated writer or editor can believe with some credence that he or she is also the best at what they do — someone to be highly valued.
And my fellow sports journalists and I were highly valued and paid accordingly… until we weren’t. That is, until the world decided it wanted to stop paying for printed magazines and newspapers and “jump” online to get the stuff for free. This pushed some incredibly talented writers out of business, and those of us who kept our hand in the world of writing and communicating did so by becoming speakers, starting websites and podcasts or writing books.
The marketplace for storytelling changed and, when it did, I realized that I better get busy changing, too. People wanted to hear stories that inspired or even instructed them, but they wanted to hear them live or while driving to work or having lunch at a business conference. Many, if not most, of us experience a point in our lives when the universe seems to be whispering that your value has changed in the eyes of others and that what you must do is go and do something else.
If you want to be able to hear the whisper when it comes, consider these two important things to remember:
Know your market: Ask yourself whether your sense of “worth” fits with the marketplace. Today’s displaced running backs really ought to know that it’s been quite a few years since football was considered a “running game,” and its biggest stars were running backs like Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Tony Dorsett. It’s been a quarterback’s league and a receiver’s game for most of the current century. I would be the last person to tell someone who loved to run with a football to stop doing it; but I would advise not putting all your eggs in one basket.
Channel your inner Swiss Army Knife: Understanding where your market is now and where it’s going will, or should, lead you to think about what new tools you should add to your belt. When many journalists saw the posting on the wall, we looked ahead to the emerging field of digital communications. In football, San Francisco’s Christian McAffrey has earned a powerful living as a top running back… but his value isn’t found as much for his running as it has been for his receiving.
Huge fullbacks like Larry Csonka were the first running backs to experience the devaluation of their running styles, so New England’s behemoth back James Develin learned how to block and catch passes from Tom Brady well enough to contribute to three Super Bowl championships.
You get the picture. Above all, the point is to be valuable. Be proud of who you are and what you’ve accomplished, but never forget that value lies in the eye of the beholder. And though it often seems unfair, we live and work in a world with lots and lots of beholders.