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Locker Room Talk

Does Le’Veon Bell’s situation prove NFL running backs are a dime a dozen?

Saquon Barkley proves versatility wins in today’s high-powered offenses

Last week, New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur challenged rookie running back Saquon Barkley to stick his nose in the scrum a bit more. The shifty Barkley has proven to be great at bouncing to the outside, making home run-type runs, but the Giants want Barkley to make more of those tough, 4- to 6-yard gains, what Shurmur called “dirty” yards.” Barkley may take a bit more punishment, but he’ll help the team.

Barkley filtered Shurmur’s challenge through the prism of a rookie running back who wants to improve and help the team.

I filtered Shurmur’s challenge through the prism of Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. Bell is the talented running back who decided last week to sit out the rest of the season rather than risk injury and jeopardize cashing in on free agency. The basis of Bell’s argument is that in an NFL where passing is king, running backs are perceived to come a dime a dozen.

“At the end of the day, it’s just a business and your body is your briefcase,” Jonathan Stewart said. “If your body is banged up, if something happens to your body, then your briefcase isn’t really worth anything.”

Once the league’s glamour position, running backs have become the NFL’s most expendable and exploited class of players. The trend began in 1978 when the NFL made significant rule changes to accelerate the passing game. If football is a 100 percent injury game, the running back is a 110 percent injury position. The question is not if you will be injured, but when and how severely.

“When it comes to the pounding we take, we get into more car accidents than anyone,” veteran Giants running back Jonathan Stewart told me recently. “There’s definitely a high-risk, high-reward situation.”

One wrong cut, one awkward hit, and the flash and dash that made a running back unstoppable is gone and his value plummets.

That’s what inspired Bell to conclude that for his short- and long-term interests, it’s better to sit out the rest of the season rather than risk almost certain injury.

Bell was a highly productive runner for Pittsburgh for five seasons. He has made the All-Pro team in two of his five seasons and played in 12 or more games in all but one of those seasons. The organization showered Bell with praise — until he demanded the franchise pay him what he felt he was worth. The team wanted to give him the franchise tag and pay him the average salary for the top players at his position. Problem is, Bell is light-years better than the average running back and he knows it.

What initially surprised me about Bell’s situation was the lack of universal support from his teammates. Rather then seeing their fates as being intertwined, Bell’s teammates grumbled that their former bell cow was less than loyal. In one news conference earlier this month, head coach Mike Tomlin, asked about Bell’s holdout, repeated the company line about being focused on the players in the locker room. “We need volunteers, not hostages,” he said.

When Bell announced last week that he would not return for the season, some of his teammates became vultures and ransacked his locker.

Contrast that with the reaction of Emmitt Smith’s Dallas Cowboys teammates to his holdout in 1993 when the Cowboys got off to an 0-2 start. After the second loss, defensive end Charles Haley famously smashed his fist into a locker and yelled, “We can’t win with this rookie running back!” He was referring to Derrick Lassic. Haley offered to pay Smith out of his own pocket. The Cowboys eventually relented and made Smith the NFL’s most highly paid running back.

Unlike those Cowboys, these Steelers are winning and touting the rise of young James Conner as proof that the team does not need Bell — indeed, that runners are a dime a dozen. Conner is cheaper and younger.

Stewart empathizes with Bell as a fellow running back and as a fellow NFL player. “I definitely see where he’s coming from,” Stewart told me. “He’s banking on himself, which a player should always do.”

Stewart was a first-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2008. He played 10 seasons with Carolina and signed in March with the Giants as a free agent.

“At the end of the day, it’s just a business and your body is your briefcase,” Stewart said. “If your body is banged up, if something happens to your body, then your briefcase isn’t really worth anything.”

The Steelers have gotten their pound of flesh out of Bell. Last season, Bell gained 1,944 all-purpose yards and broke Pittsburgh’s single-season record for catches by a running back — a record he had previously set. Bell broke Jerome Bettis’ club record for most yards from scrimmage during a player’s first 60 games with the team. In Bell’s absence, the team is getting mileage out of his replacement, Conner, the 23-year-old former third-round selection.

Conner, like Barkley, is a young player taking advantage of an opportunity and trying to find his way in the league. Conner and Barkley are doing what young people in all professions are expected to do: work long hours, run through brick walls — and make dirty football yards.

On Sunday, eight of Barkley’s 27 carries were within the 4- to 6-yard range of Shurmur’s “dirty” yards challenge, including a 5-yard touchdown.

“When he said run tougher, I don’t think he was criticizing my effort, and I didn’t take it personally,” Barkley said after Sunday’s game. “I run how I always run. I’m not going to change that, but I took it as just being more aware. I was able to change the pace of how I hit the hole and try something different.”

Stewart remembered how as a young player he would fight, scratch and claw for every yard, often suffering injuries in the process. Then one of his coaches told him he had to learn how to give up, how to go down, so he could live to play another down.

“The older you get, the wiser you become,” he said. “I think running backs nowadays are a lot smarter, a lot more educated about their bodies.”

How Conner will do in the playoffs is yet to be determined, but that’s not Bell’s concern, nor is Bell’s long-term security Pittsburgh’s concern.

“Nobody’s going to care about your body the way you do. No one’s going to care about what plans you have in the future the way you do,” said Stewart.

Stewart said that when he entered the NFL in 2008, general managers and head coaches were looking for a specific type of running back. “Twenty to 25 carries per game, a bruiser who could block and catch a little out of the backfield,” Stewart said.

There was the era of running back by committee when no one back could do everything, so the workload was divided. “That was when the value of the position diminished,” Stewart said.

Today, a running back who wants to be on the field all the time has to learn how to do a little of everything. Bell is part of that era.

“You’ve got guys coming up now who have learned the position a whole different way. Backs like Barkley, Bell, Todd Gurley can literally line up anywhere on the field and be on the field every play.”

In July, the Los Angeles Rams rewarded Gurley with a four-year, $60 million contract that included $45 million of guaranteed money.

“They went about their business the right way,” Stewart said, referring to the Rams’ deal with Gurley. “They’re trying to win games today. Sometimes you’ve got to bank on guys you believe in.”

What’s unknown is the extent to which NFL teams will put Bell in the deep freeze and unofficially collude to keep him from cashing in on the free-agent market. Owners have a penchant for sending messages to defiant players as a way of showing them who’s in charge, as Houston Texans owner Bob McNair indelicately said, showing players that inmates do not run the prison.

Bell in some ways is as much of a threat to owners inside the game as Colin Kaepernick is to them outside of the game. Imagine star players, especially running backs, being so certain of their value that they refuse to play rather than volunteer themselves to be chewed up and spit out.

“I’m not really sure what’s going on in Pittsburgh, but I think Le’Veon’s situation will definitely shape the worth of the running back position in a positive way,” Stewart said.

In 1969, running back was the game’s glamour position. O.J. Simpson was the first player taken in that year’s draft. Leroy Keyes and Ron Johnson were big-name college running backs also taken in the first round. Yale’s Calvin Hill was taken in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys.

“They’ve changed the game to emphasize passing; in that sense, that position has been diminished and marginalized,” Hill told me last week.

Hill, who works with the Cowboys as a consultant, has seen the position lose its luster — and value. “It’s amazing to me, only because you get the crap beat out of you. I think it’s the most dangerous position in the game when you look at life expectancy. Usually when there’s a lot of danger associated with something, it means higher pay.”

He added that he’s not sure he would play running back in today’s NFL.

“If I were coming in the league now and they wanted me to play running back, I might tell them I want to play tight end,” he said.

After Sunday’s game, I asked Shurmur how a young running back like Barkley balances playing in the moment and helping the team win with staying healthy enough so that he can cash in when his rookie contract ends in four years. Shurmur paused, smiled and finally said, “Two or three years from now, we’ll revisit that.”

Stewart, who has survived 11 NFL seasons, offered a more expansive view of balancing team with self.

“The way you balance that is understanding your value and understanding your worth and understanding what you put out on the field,” Stewart said. “You have to be secure in yourself and be willing to bet on yourself.”

Bell is a runner willing to walk away.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.