LAS VEGAS — If the chance to win the Super Bowl isn’t enough pressure on Christian McCaffrey, the boost that all NFL running backs need to rejuvenate their suppressed market could rest on his legs.
McCaffrey, 27, just won NFL Offensive Player of the Year to complicate analytics-based claims that running backs start to decline at that age.
With a 49ers’ win in Super Bowl LVIII, he also could dispel the myth that champions don’t pay running backs since he is under a four-year, $64 million contract and his 2023 salary-cap hit would’ve been $12 million if the 49ers didn’t restructure some money into the future.
“I used to get it a lot because I played safety and back then safeties weren’t well compensated,” 49ers general manager John Lynch, a Hall of Famer, said. “There is an age-old thing in this league: Make yourself irreplaceable. I think that’s the rule of thumb. Maybe our guy changes that, along with some other guys. Our guy is pretty special.”
Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Derrick Henry, Tony Pollard and Austin Ekeler — nine Pro Bowls, four yards-from-scrimmage titles and four touchdowns-from-scrimmage titles between them — are free agents this offseason.
The free-agent market bottomed out last offseason as more teams moved toward backfield-by-committee and cost-controlled rookie contracts, but the Colts more recently extended Jonathan Taylor for three years, $42 million ($26.5 million guaranteed).
“I’m hopeful that’s going to change,” McCaffrey said. “If you look at history, every position has gone through lulls because of the franchise tag and because of where the cap is at. I think I’ve seen running backs not in the playoffs who are the most valuable player on their team.”
Running backs past and present are rooting for the 49ers to evolve the discussion.
“What we are looking at is, what is the business model of the new era of football? Do you pay your quarterback and figure out the rest of the team? Or do you pay the rest of your team and figure out the quarterback?” former Giants running back Rashad Jennings told The Post. “That is what this Super Bowl is. Kyle Shanahan’s model, or Andy Reid’s model?”
A commonly skewed statistic states no Super Bowl champion since 2009 has paid its leading rusher in the game more than $2 million in salary but ignores that Percy Harvin out-rushed the highly paid Marshawn Lynch when the Seahawks won and Ray Rice received a $15 million signing bonus the same year that the Ravens won.
Moreover, most of those champions had Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes at quarterback and other teams do not.
McCaffrey’s “salary” is $1.08 million while he is earning $12 million cash this year, per spotrac.com.
“You are talking about a guy who is going to be a one-third of your offense, so why would you want to cut that corner?” said NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew, a retired running back. “That never made sense to me. You pay the special player, not the position. I think the league has gotten it wrong the last couple years.”
Hall of Fame coach Bill Cowher would like the league to find a way to help running backs.
“I’d like to see some kind of incentivized program for the production that these guys give you,” said Cowher, a CBS “NFL Today” analyst.
The details of such a program likely would have to be part of the next CBA negotiation in 2030. That won’t help the current group because the NFL discards most running backs in their late 20s.
“Maybe that’s been true for the last five or 10 years, but that hasn’t been true when you look at the history of the NFL,” McCaffrey said. “Backs like Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk and Barry [Sanders] were good forever. It depends on the guy. I think that’s a myth that hopefully we continue to debunk. You have to take extreme care of your body, extreme care of your mind and you have to dedicate your life to this game.”
McCaffrey’s unique pass-catching ability elevates his stature. Would a ring elevate the cause?
“I don’t think it hurts, but I don’t think it’s going to create a drastic change,” Barkley said. “Everyone knows how valuable Christian is. It’s just a trend.”
And a new counterpoint is always around the corner.
“Teams will still say the 49ers only did it because they have a quarterback on a rookie contract,” one NFL agent said. “It could help a little, but only the three or four special running backs.”