As the league trended toward high-powered passing offenses winning Super Bowls, the value of a running back became dubious.
While teams like the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings paid their elite running backs, the teams with elite quarterbacks were the ones making repeated playoff runs and winning championships.
Of course, the narrative skewed too far in the opposite direction for a while. Balance is necessary for a successful offense. The Seahawks and 49ers were among the teams with the best five rushing offenses in the league this year, and the New England Patriots relied on a dependable running game to complement quarterback Tom Brady.
But the fact remained, that the best paid and most explosive running backs didn't always equate to playoff success. Adrian Peterson, the best running back in the league, has made three playoff appearances in his six seasons and won one playoff game.
Why do I bring this up now?
Yesterday NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal took a look at the people whose bank accounts benefited from Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. He listed several of Manning's coaches and teammates, along with a random assortment of others who profited financially from playing with or coaching Manning. But he missed one group of players: AFC South running backs.
It's no coincidence that three of the five running backs with the highest average per year salaries are in the division in which Manning spent the first 14 years of his career. One of the best ways to stop Manning is by keeping him off the field with a clock-eating running game. Thus, the AFC South featured not just defenses, but also offenses designed to neutralize him.
Needing to control the clock made their running games that much more valuable. When it came time to pay running backs, the Texans, Titans and Jaguars doled out some of the richest contracts in terms of average per year. Chris Johnson ($13.5 apy), Arian Foster ($8.7 apy) and Maurice Jones-Drew ($7.63 apy) are all in the top five league-wide, money-wise. Jones-Drew is at the end of his deal and it doesn't appear he'll get another lucrative one from the Jaguars. Foster's deal came in the same offseason that Manning left the division, but his value was set by the past.