Amid the NFL’s arms race, NFL running backs have gotten lost in the shuffle while teams look for ways to amplify their passing attacks at the expense of their backfield allies. This summer the war being waged on the ground game has neared nuclear heat levels. The stakes aren’t as high, but they’re close if you’re feenin’ for football and your squad has a running back in the market for a new deal. The New York Giants’ brief detente with Saquon Barkley doesn’t hold a candle to the air-to-ground missiles Jim Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts and Jonathan Taylor are lobbing in each other’s directions.
Taylor has spent the offseason operating with the expectation that the Colts would reward him with a contract extension amid a bleak landscape for ball carriers. No quarterback who has shown a hint of the production Taylor has would ever be subjected to the disrespect Taylor has been shown by the Colts as he embarks on the final year of his four-year rookie scale contract. Fortunately, as a second-round pick, Taylor’s employment scroll doesn’t allow a fifth-year team option. However, facing the possibility of being franchise tagged next offseason, or being lowballed if he suffers an injury, Taylor is going all out for an extension.
New head coach Shane Steichen coordinated one of the more prolific rushing offenses of the last decade. If he is installing a similarly run-heavy offense that supplements Anthony Richardson’s precocious skills as a runner and hides his defects in the pocket, Taylor will be a major piece in the game plan, so he does have some leverage.
Taylor saw what happened to his predecessor Marlon Mack during the final year of his rookie deal and seems intent on preventing history from repeating itself. Taylor was a rookie when four carries into Week 1 of the 2021 season, Mack tore the Achilles in his right ankle. Mack was a 1,000-yard back the year prior, but never started another NFL game again. He is also cognizant of how depressing the franchise tag is for running backs.
Consequently, the brinkmanship between Taylor and the Colts has grown toxic enough to register on the Geiger Counter. Not only are the Colts refusing to budge, but Irsay’s comments over the last week have only heightened tension between the Colts and Taylor. Irsay’s airheaded response to Najee Harris’ statement regarding the franchise tag and other issues addressed during an emergency running backs Zoom call didn’t take into account that his franchise tailback was seeking a new deal.
During the offseason, Taylor hired Malki Kawa of First Round Management, who has taken a more combative stance with the organization. On July 26, Irsay tweeted, “NFL Running Back situation- We have negotiated a CBA, that took years of effort and hard work and compromise in good faith by both sides..to say now that a specific Player category wants another negotiation after the fact, is inappropriate. Some Agents are selling ‘bad faith.’” Kawa rebuked Irsay in his tweet response, telling Irsay, “Bad faith is not paying your top offensive player.”
Kawa doubled down by quote tweeting, “I doubt it” in response to Ian Rapoport’s pondering if the relationship could be salvaged. Over the weekend, Taylor delivered the nuke by asking for a trade. Irsay’s delirious response left the saga at a weird impasse.
“If I die tonight and Jonathan Taylor is out of the league, no one’s gonna miss us,” Irsay told The Athletic. “The league goes on. We know that. The National Football (League) rolls on. It doesn’t matter who comes and who goes, and it’s a privilege to be a part of it.”
Irsay injecting his shower thoughts into the center of this has only metastasized Taylor’s problem with the organization. On Sunday, the conflict escalated further when reports emerged from ESPN’s Stephen Holder that the Colts were considering placing Taylor on the non-football injury list, after he reported to camp complaining of back pain related to a pre-existing injury. If placed on the NFI List, Taylor’s contract would essentially pause for a year if he remained on it longer than six games. Taylor was already on the PUP list, but Indianapolis’ countermove only moves the Colts and Taylor closer to mutually assured destruction.
Running backs are viewed as a rapidly depreciating asset, but Taylor’s ceiling is higher than his peers in his position. His production at Wisconsin led to him becoming the first player to gain 6,000 yards in a three-year span. After slicing through defenses at an unheard-of pace, Taylor proceeded to lead the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns in 2021 before injuries held him and the Colts back last season.
Just as Taylor’s experience watching Marlon Mack get tossed into the garbage heap when football execs were done with him rests at the backdrop, Irsay’s history paints his perception of running back value. Irsay has always treated upper-echelon running backs like a 2009 Saturn instead of custom Rolls Royces. In 1999, amidst Marshall Faulk’s holdout, Irsay and team president Bill Polian shipped their disgruntled running back off to St. Louis. His serendipitous arrival cued up the Greatest Show on Turf while the Colts wound up drafting Class of 2020 Hall of Famer Edgerrin James to replace him. In 2006, the Colts let James walk in free agency and won a Super Bowl the next season. Taylor would have been better off blowing his stack before the draft.
There’s no guarantee a new franchise would surrender to Taylor’s contract demands, but Irsay’s seems firmly opposed to it. Past is prologue and the Colts should give everyone what they need by trading Taylor while the headaches are contained to training camp and his value is high.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex