It’s not news that Melvin Gordon has regrets. What might be surprising is how far back those regrets go.
It was just four years ago that Gordon was considered one of the league’s best running backs. His 2019 holdout when he was with the Chargers was a canary in the coal mine — a forerunner for the discontent that has settled in with the NFL’s rushers today.
Now with the Ravens, Gordon has said before that he regrets going through the holdout. But what he really seems to regret? Deciding to be a running back.
“If you’re thinking about playing running back, think twice,” Gordon told me Saturday. “Unless you really, truly feel like God put you on this planet to run the ball, if you’re athletic enough to switch positions, I’d do so in a heartbeat.”
Ask around in NFL locker rooms, and you’ll find a lot of running backs issuing similar sentiments. Once one of the league’s glamour roles, midcareer rushers are finding it a lot harder to get paid.
Saquon Barkley recently signed a new deal with the Giants after much consternation. Jonathan Taylor wants out of Indianapolis because he can’t get a new deal done. Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott were offseason roster cuts, with the Vikings and Cowboys looking for younger, cheaper options to hand the ball.
NFL front offices don’t view running backs as singular talents anymore. In the last decade, teams have found they can get by with up-and-comers. It has created a sense of frustration in the league’s rushers, who recently convened a Zoom meeting to talk about why they can’t get the dollars they feel they deserve.
Gordon’s story — when he didn’t end up getting the contract he wanted and was done with the Chargers less than a year later — seemed like a cautionary tale at the time. But, now, it’s just how things go for running backs.
Gordon weighed in on a recent holdout, Las Vegas’ Josh Jacobs, in an interview on FanDuel TV, saying he would not go down that path if he were in Jacobs’ shoes. But he adjusted his commentary Saturday, acknowledging it was a bit hypocritical of him to tell someone not to do what he did in 2019.
“I know I said that if I was Josh Jacobs I’d come back,” Gordon said. “But, hell, I didn’t lead the league in rushing, and I sat out for way longer than he did. So I just know it’s a tough time for him right now, because I’ve been in that position. There’s no other place right now I know he would want to be than with his teammates.”
You don’t have to scour other markets to see the tension brewing. In the Ravens’ own running back room, there is a murky situation: Fourth-year back J.K. Dobbins has started the year on the phyiscally-unable-to-perform list, but the discourse about his hamstring injury has felt somewhat loaded. He missed mandatory minicamp, to the frustration of coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Todd Monken. When he was asked about Dobbins’ availability to start training camp, Harbaugh’s words were ambiguous.
“I wish it was a simple answer. There are always a lot of things that go into football, but there is some complexity to it, and we’re working through all that.”
Although Dobbins hasn’t officially announced he’s “holding in” while waiting for a better contract, that hasn’t stopped speculation that’s what he’s doing (NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport surmised as much this summer). Dobbins has been around the team, seen palling up with team officials such as President Sashi Brown, but hasn’t spoken on the record to the media about his situation, injury or otherwise.
Gordon, however, might have outed his teammate.
“I didn’t even know he’s sitting out, but J.K. is sitting out,” Gordon said. “They’re not even making a big headline out of it, unless you’re in Indy, I guess. And they got other players sitting out. I didn’t even know J.K. was sitting out until I came here.”
A cynical observer might wonder if the Ravens brought in Gordon to underline what Dobbins could risk by missing time. But, even though he did not participate in the Zoom meeting a week ago, Gordon has a lot of sympathy for the league’s premier running backs. It seems telling about the state of things that Austin Ekeler, the back the Chargers used to replace him during his holdout, was reportedly the organizer of the meeting. Today’s young and cheap replacements are tomorrow’s grumbling superstars.
“I’ve said a lot, and I’ve taken a lot of heat for saying it,” Gordon laughed. “Now those boys have come out and said it, and everyone’s agreeing.”
But even if Gordon was ahead of his time for spotlighting the issue of running back compensation, the tools the players have at the negotiating table aren’t much different. Short of hold-ins, holdouts or trade requests, they lack leverage to get more lucrative deals. Big-money contracts for running backs are going by the wayside. Even the franchise tag this season was lower for any position group other than kickers and punters.
Gordon said the only way he sees forward is for quarterbacks, receivers and other premier NFL positions to start holding out in solidarity with their ground-game teammates. But he doesn’t see that happening.
A good running back is still a huge boost to a winning team, Gordon said. Although the Chiefs won the Super Bowl without a big-name back, the Eagles were narrowly runners-up thanks a lot to Pro Bowl rusher Miles Sanders. But he feels such examples are often overlooked.
“It’s just an argument that you can’t win, honestly,” he said. “And, with the [collective bargaining agreement] not changing for five or six years, we’re pretty much screwed for five or six years.”
Until then, he echoes former Ravens running back Mark Ingram, who said last week he wouldn’t let his kids play running back. Gordon doesn’t have children, but he agrees with the parental advice.
“You better find something else to play,” he said. “Play baseball. Play basketball or something else. Quarterback or DB or something. Running back just ain’t with the times. And I feel like it will change, but it won’t change until that CBA.”