Disposable Feature Backs: Today's Guide to Ignoring the NFL

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Let us discuss the absolute bullshit that is the rookie wage scale and the NFL's terrible non-guaranteed contracts.

So, prior to the 2011 NFL lockout, NFL draft picks signed contracts with their new teams that were based upon bargaining leverage. The Rams drafted Sam Bradford in 2010; injuries cut his college career short; the Rams needed a quarterback; and, even though Bradford had been given virtually no choice about where in the entire United States he'd ply his trade for the first part of his career, he and his agent at least had the power of market forces. The contract he signed was outrageous: six years for $78 million, for a guy who hadn't ever practiced with an NFL team.


Now, if there's one thing Americans hate, it's the uninhibited churning of the free market. No, wait, that's not exactly right: Americans only hate the uninhibited churning of the free market when their favorite football teams are exposed to its risks and pitfalls. Heaven forbid this elaborate skimming operation whose logo I wear on my favorite beanie should suffer because their management folks make unfortunate personnel decisions!

The problem of general managers being bad negotiators and bad talent evaluators and catastrophically bad team builders was therefore solved—as everything else is in the NFL—on the backs of the players. But wait!, you say, the players agreed to the rookie wage scale! It's true! So they did. Of course, there's a problem there: Do you know who wasn't represented at the bargaining table during those negotiations? Literally everyone who would go on to be a rookie NFL draft pick, because they were still in college, high school, elementary school, a crib, a womb, etc.


There's a problem with the NFL rookie wage scale, and we'll call him Doug Martin. In 2012, Martin was drafted with the 31st pick in the first round, and was the second running back selected. He signed a five-year deal with the Bucs worth $6.787 million, a salary slotted by the wage scale and one that came in about $2 million less than Jahvid Best's deal as the 30th pick two years earlier, in the last draft before the new CBA. The length of Martin's rookie-scale contract is important because the average career of players at his position is less than four seasons.

Martin had one hell of a rookie season: he made the Pro Bowl and set, tied, or challenged a number of franchise records. He did these things making an amount of money that had been arbitrarily conjured up using a mathematical formula that didn't consider his position, his team, his talent, or what his bargaining leverage might be. Out here in the real world, you negotiate your salary based upon a whole bunch of different considerations. In the NFL, as the 31st pick, he made slightly more than the guy drafted behind him (recently-retired Giants running-back David Wilson), and slightly less than the guy drafted ahead of him (wide-receiver A.J. Jenkins, who tallied 8 total receptions before flaming out of the league altogether)(EDIT: A.J. Jenkins plays for the Chiefs and has 16 career receptions, thereby validating the rookie wage scale once and for all. ONCE AND FOR ALL!).

Martin is stuck under his cheap rookie contract through next season. He missed much of last season due to a shoulder injury, and has been struggling with injuries and ineffectiveness on a miserably bad Bucs team this season. Since 2009, about 20 running backs have been drafted each season, meaning there are plenty of fresh bodies to step in for a guy worn down by the kind of heavy workload Martin saw in 2012. Hell, since Martin's name was called in the 2012 draft, the Bucs have drafted three other players at his position. This is what depth means—when one guy's body gives out, another guy's there to take his place.

Where does this leave Doug Martin? Well, up the river, to be precise. Without a dramatic career turnaround, his monster rookie season will be a non-factor when he is finally able to negotiate a new deal. The risks of playing football have all been his—non-guaranteed contracts mean that the wear and tear of being a featured back could cost him millions while protecting the Bucs altogether. NFL fans will be happy to know their teams can recover from that kind of misfortune. Meanwhile, an entire professional career may have come and gone before the player ever had a chance to negotiate his fair value.


Non-guaranteed deals and a wage scale that artificially pins down young players' salaries for longer than the length of an average career have worked together to utterly screw one of the most important player positions in the league. NFL running backs are among the most exploited groups in American professional sports. They are never more valuable than when they're young, fresh, and healthy; the sport exposes them to horrific violence and injury; they're casually replaced; and their career earnings are aggressively capped using a scale that doesn't differentiate between their value and the value of a backup tight end. It's bullshit.

Other Sports

12:55 p.m. — beIN Sports — Serie A Soccer: Fiorentina vs. Napoli

Napoli is in a very respectable fifth place in the Serie A table. I am like the only person who enjoys Italian soccer.


1:55 p.m. — beIN Sports Español — La Liga Soccer: Valencia vs. Athletic Bilbao

Valencia is hot on the ass of Barcelona and not too far behind Real Madrid at the top of the table. They ought to clean up against Athletic.


3:55 p.m. — beIN Sports Español — La Liga Soccer: Real Sociedad vs. Atlético Madrid

Should be an aesthetically pleasing ass-whupping.

5 p.m. — ESPN2 — MLS Soccer: New England vs. Columbus

The second leg of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. New England is up two goals in the aggregate after an exciting, high scoring first leg.


7 p.m. — NBA TV — NBA Basketball: 76ers @ Raptors

Woof. Come on, NBA. There's got to be a way to flex the Sixers out of all national television spots.


7:30 p.m. — ESPN2 — MLS Soccer: LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake

The second leg of the Western Conference Semi-Finals. These two teams fought to a scoreless draw in the opening leg, and Salt Lake only lost at home once during the regular season.


7:30 p.m. — NBA League Pass — NBA Basketball: Kings @ Thunder

This ought to be a blast. The Kings have been one of the best teams to watch so far. Boogie Cousins is having an amazing start to the season.


8 p.m. — NBA League Pass — NBA Basketball: Warriors @ Suns

This is game two of a back-to-back for the undefeated Warriors, while the run-and-gun Suns are still trying to work out the kinks. Should be a good one.


9:30 p.m. — NBA League Pass — NBA Basketball: Hornets @ Lakers

Oh man. Ohhhhhhhh man. Love to watch these Lakers. So dysfunctional!

TV Reruns

Noon — BBC America — Top Gear

Four hours of Top Gear will get you all the way through the early games.

7 p.m. — AMC — The Walking Dead

Two reruns and then the new episode at 9 p.m.

4 p.m. — FXX — The Simpsons

The usual mini-marathon will get your through the late afternoon games.


Noon — Spike TV — Gladiator

Is Gladiator the worst Best Picture Oscar winner of all time?

Noon — TNT — True Grit (2010)

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld are terrific.

1 p.m. — AMC — Black Swan

Scary and well-acted and gripping throughout.

1 p.m. — VH-1 — Clueless

I literally have nothing to say about this movie.

2 p.m. — abc Family — A Bug's Life

It's a lesser Disney movie, but it has its moments. Kevin Spacey is fun as the voice of Hopper, the big bad villain.


2 p.m. — CMT — Days of Thunder

Somehow, Days of Thunder manages to be a totally watchable film. Robert Duvall has to account for something like 65% of that.


2:30 p.m. — Ovation — Pale Rider

This movie stars Clint Eastwood and Michael Moriarty from before they both went crazy.


4 p.m. — abc Family — WALL-E

I catch so much shit from my family for not loving this movie. It's cute, sure, but it leaves me totally flat.


4:15 p.m. — TNT — Saving Private Ryan

Cloying overcooked chicken-shit war-porn.

4:15 p.m. — IFC — Jackie Brown

This movie gets better every time I watch it. Samuel L. Jackson is terrifying.

6 p.m. — abc Family — Up

Another hugely popular Disney-Pixar movie that left me cold.

7:45 p.m. — Sundance — Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is maybe the perfect winter movie, and one of the all-time great comedies.


8 p.m. — TNT — Gran Torino

I feel like Gran Torino was given an awful lot of latitude to go for laughs via offensive racial jokes, and I'm certainly not sure that kind of thing is redeemed by a white guy saving the neighborhood from the awful ethnic thugs.


8 p.m. — abc Family — Sleeping Beauty

The most visually beautiful of the Disney animated movies, in one man's opinion.

8 p.m. — IFC — No Country for Old Men

Sticks pretty close to the book from start to finish.

Last chance to get outside and enjoy the world before the weather bomb kills us all. Go leaf-peeping or apple-picking or cider-tasting. Make a day of it.