Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The NFL Is Churning Through Players At A Record Rate. The Numbers Suggest That This Is All Part Of The League's Plan.

In a world where NFL owners are doing all they can to make players disposable, where the name of the game has become to market a few stars but otherwise make sure you’re just rooting for some guys wearing matching pajamas, or names on a fantasy ticker, it’s high time we appreciate J.J. Jansen, L.P. Ladouceur, Don Muhlbach and Jon Weeks.

It’s unlikely that you’ve heard of all four, but even if you’re a fan of the Panthers, Cowboys, Lions, or Texans, you still might not know who those players are, even though they’re among the longest-tenured performers for those teams, and all four have gone to the Pro Bowl.

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Jansen, Ladouceur, Muhlbach and Weeks are all long-snappers, and together they represent 40 percent of the players who appeared in all 160 regular-season games in the 2010s.

The other 60 percent are punters Britton Colquitt, Dustin Colquitt, and Sam Koch, kicker Mason Crosby, defensive back Brandon Carr, and exactly one guy who’s a household name, former Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.

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In the 2000s, both Brett Favre and Peyton Manning played every single game, as did Ronde Barber (assuming there was no “twin magic” after Tiki supposedly retired in 2006) and London Fletcher, among a total of 11 of that decade’s iron men. The list for the 1990s featured three Hall of Fame linemen — Bruce Matthews, Randall McDaniel, and John Randle — among a total of 17 players.

In another example of the disposable running back, Niners’ Tevin Campbell is carted off the field during the NFC Championship and is replaced by Raheem Mostert, who runs San Francisco back into the Super Bowl. Mostert would rush for 220 yards and score four touchdowns.
In another example of the disposable running back, Niners’ Tevin Campbell is carted off the field during the NFC Championship and is replaced by Raheem Mostert, who runs San Francisco back into the Super Bowl. Mostert would rush for 220 yards and score four touchdowns.
Photo: Getty

Maybe the dwindling numbers are due to players being more willing to sit out a game these days. Maybe an increased focus on player safety and health has brought about an erosion of the “toughing it out” mantra of past eras. Or... perhaps the NFL is chewing players up and spitting them out at a wildly increasing pace, one that would only increase if a 17th game gets added to the regular-season schedule.

In the 1990s, there were 83 players who appeared in 150 or more games. In the 2000s, that number dropped to 63. Last decade, it was 37. Meanwhile, the number of players who appeared in 1-32 NFL games, two seasons’ worth or fewer, went from 2,152 in the ’90s, to 2,663 in the ’00s to 3,186 last decade.

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It should be fair to expect that a league that has made a very public point of promoting player safety would feature players enjoying longer careers. Instead, the exact opposite has happened. From 2000-11, there was only one season in which the majority of the league was composed of rookies, second-, and third-year players. It makes sense that the outlier season was 2002, when the Houston Texans started as an expansion team.

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Since 2012, though, there has been only one year in which a majority of players were in at least their fourth season, and 2019 featured 52.4 percent of NFL players in their first, second, or third season, the highest rate of the last 20 years.

All of the increase in player churn has taken place in an era of a stable scheduling, with 16 games and one bye week for each team. What happens if NFL owners get their way in a new collective bargaining agreement and a 17th game is added to the schedule?

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Attorneys Ben Meiselas and Ray Genco, in a four-page letter to players breaking down the 456-page CBA proposal, answer that question in all caps: “MORE GAMES, MORE PLAYS, MORE INJURIES, SHORTER CAREERS, WITHOUT MORE MONEY.”

The problem in arguing against the proposal is that careers already are getting shorter. In a league where the majority of players are going to be out after three years, if not sooner, why wouldn’t it be in those players’ best interest to take a deal in which the carrot for an extra game is an increase in the league minimum salary?

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“Increase to minimum salary is offset by use of Split Contracts,” Meiselas and Genco wrote. “We believe this practice will be used to hurt minimum-earning players and further depress wages.”

The word “further” is important here, because the NFL already is doing a very effective job at depressing wages by leaning ever harder on rookies. There were 430 players who made their debuts in 2019, the fourth straight season featuring more than 400 new faces in the league. In the previous 16 seasons, only twice were there more than 400 rookies.

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The split contract provision in the CBA proposal is nefarious as it is worded in a way that appears beneficial to veteran players.

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Page 178 of the 456-page of the CBA: “Section 8. Split Contracts: After the point in the regular season at which a player with four or more Accrued Seasons who signed his Player Contract when he was a Restricted Free Agent has been placed on the Active List of his Club, he must for the balance of that regular season be paid his Active List salary if he is thereafter placed on the Inactive List, whether or not his Player Contract calls for a lower salary if he is placed on the Inactive List.”

In honest terms, what this means is that teams are disincentivized from signing experienced players because of the danger of locking in guaranteed money for an inactive player. The NFL’s proposal widens the gap between the rookie minimum and veteran minimums over the course of the next decade, further encouraging the use of rookies to fill out rosters. It’s already hard enough out there for veteran players, and the NFL’s own media machine doesn’t try to hide it. On the eve of training camp last year, Washington cut linebacker Mason Foster. “The move saves the team $4 million against the salary cap,” was the fourth sentence of the NFL.com story when it happened. The eighth sentence, meanwhile, read: “Foster, an eight-year pro, started all 16 games for Washington last season and was seventh in the league with 131 combined tackles.”

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Did anyone really notice Foster not being around while Washington tanked its way to a 3-13 record and the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft?

It’s not just bad teams that are willing to jettison still-productive players, though, in part because the pipeline of talent from college football never stops flowing. The NFL has become a pass-first league, so you might expect that the star running back is a dying breed, especially in an era of tandem backfields. But that’s not the reason there aren’t star running backs anymore: it’s that anyone can be one. In the 2010s, there were 38 players who had multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons, down slightly from 40 in the 2000s. In the 1990s? There were 22 such players. In the 1980s, there were 23.

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Another way to think about it is that Eric Dickerson led the 1980s with seven 1,000-yard seasons, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders each had nine in the 1990s, LaDainian Tomlinson had eight in the 2000s… and the leader in the 2010s was LeSean McCoy with six. While they might not make ’em like Dickerson or Tomlinson anymore, it’s easy enough to find someone who can be plugged into an NFL offense and deliver on the level of Dorsey Levens, Errict Rhett, or Duce Staley – all two-time 1,000-yard rushers in the 1990s – and find it easy to move on after squeezing as much production out of them as they can before those running backs command larger contracts.

Ladainian Tomlinson managed to rack up eight thousand-yard seasons in the 2000s, something we’re seeing less and less of each decade.
Ladainian Tomlinson managed to rack up eight thousand-yard seasons in the 2000s, something we’re seeing less and less of each decade.
Photo: Getty
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Teams will continue to pay astronomical sums of money to top stars — or, at least, give out contracts for astronomical sums of money, with only a percentage of it guaranteed — and be able to point to the salaries of quarterbacks and a select few free agents each spring as evidence that the system is treating players not just fairly, but well. The reality is that the league already has decimated its veteran middle class — 20 years ago, one out of every four players had seven-plus seasons’ experience, now it’s one out of every five — and will continue to do so. Regardless of whether a 17th game is added to the season, there is every reason to expect the NFL to continue to rely on a labor market full of kids fresh from college who are willing to work comparatively cheaply and most of whom will be run into the ground and out of the business before they ever get a chance to really make serious dollars, unless they’re top-level stars or specialists in an indispensable niche part of the industry.

Forget learning to code. Learn to long-snap.

All games played data is from the Play Index at Pro-Football-Reference.com

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