Le’Veon Bell may have inadvertently stumbled on a cure for the short shelf life that many NFL running backs face. It’s given Saquon Barkley food for thought. Barkley is curious to see if it works.
Bell, who sat out last season as part of a dispute with the Steelers over his contract, will play for the Jets in 2019. If his time off winds up serving as a fountain of youth — in other words, if he has a typically productive season with the Jets and maybe another half-dozen in the NFL after that to play into his mid-30s — it could push others toward considering a sort of gap year in their careers in the future.
Might we soon see running backs deciding to trade in a season of their prime to extend the longevity of it?
“That’s actually a really good question that could come into play,” Barkley, the Giants’ glimmering second-year back, told Newsday when the theory was proposed to him in training camp this past week. “Not for me,” he quickly added, “but for other players.”
Football wisdom holds that by the time they hit 30 years old, most running backs see their skills diminish from the pounding they take. There certainly are outliers to that invisible barrier, but for the most part, it continues to hold true despite advancements in training and medical care.
This is a league in which quarterbacks now routinely play up to and beyond 40, but the rules are designed to protect them from harm. Running backs get no such shield, and their bodies tend to break down much quicker.
Bell is 27 and has played five NFL seasons at a very high level. If he can play another five or six in this second stanza of his career, he’ll have exceeded timeline expectations for his position — and if that occurs, he might owe it to not playing in 2018.
Bell already has spoken about how fresh he feels coming back with the Jets. In an interview with ESPN Radio in New York in late July, he said he believes that the year off will add years to his career.
“It’s like football, you recover a little bit, but you have bumps and bruises that don’t fully heal,” he said. “Over the course of your career, your shoulder or knee or ankle or toe, you get used to it hurting. When I took this whole year off and came back, I can’t remember what was hurting in Pittsburgh. I literally can’t remember what aches I had.”
Barkley isn’t there yet. He’s still just 22 and has played only one NFL season. Even after he had 351 touches as a rookie, he said he was “chillin’ ” and ready for more if the Giants had made the playoffs.
But the NFL turns young men old very quickly — especially running backs. The Rams’ Todd Gurley already is starting to show signs of wear. The Jaguars’ Leonard Fournette has had a few dings that have slowed him down since his rookie season. Ezekiel Elliott’s highest rushing total, touchdown total and yards-per-carry average in his career came in his first season with the Cowboys.
Like a new car that diminishes in value the second it is driven off the lot, Barkley may never be as good or as fresh or as productive for the rest of his career as he was in 2018.
A year off at some point, though, might help him — or any running back — recoup and recharge.
Players get a halftime break in games. Why not a halftime break in their career?
Say a great running back has a window of eight prime seasons as a ballpark average. By the time he’s done playing five, which would be the extent of a rookie contract for a first-round pick, he’d have only three left. But if he took a year off, he might have another five in him. Maybe more. That not only could add to the span of his career but make him more valuable as a free agent.
It wouldn’t only help players, but teams. Running backs know the clock is ticking. That’s why Elliott and Melvin Gordon of the Chargers are holding out this summer, each trying to get new deals in place after just three seasons of service. The pressure is on them to make as much money as they can in what figures to be a short period of time. Elite running backs feel the need to push the contractual envelope sooner rather than later. A year away from the physical drains of football could reduce that urgency. Players might be more likely to play out their initial deals — or at least play deeper into them — if they knew their value could be improved after a season off.
Those holdouts, if they linger, could turn into sabbatical seasons anyway. It did for Bell last year. This isn’t any other job, so it’s not as simple as putting in for vacation. And there are repercussions. Bell did leave a lot of money on the table when he skipped 2018, but that conceivably could be made up for on the back end if he does squeeze an extra year or two or three out of his time in the league because of the hiatus.
A player would have to have a measure of financial security in place to willingly skip a season’s worth of paychecks, but that’s not unreasonable, given what highly drafted players make entering the league these days.
Bell also received backlash from his teammates in Pittsburgh and from fans around the country. He was painted as selfish and ungrateful. If such power moves become more common, the recriminations might become less intense. But a player still would need to be able to stomach the backlash.
All of which means Bell is a kind of real-time experiment for this possibility. If he remains a stellar player for the Jets throughout the life of the four-year deal he signed with them, then cashes in on another contract with the Jets or another team when he is 31, it might start to open eyes about the benefits of not playing.
People are watching.
Barkley is watching.
“If he does that, that might come into play,” the Giants running back said. “If you ask me that question in three or four years, I can answer that question better.”
As for now?
“I would say no,” Barkley said. “I don’t think so. I don’t think it will shift toward that way. I don’t think so.”
But it does have him thinking.