There are few harsher truths in the world of professional football than the fact that running backs, once one of the most prized players on a football team, have become shockingly disposable in the modern NFL.
Whereas the league used to be stacked with superstar running backs like Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson, many current NFL teams employ a “platoon” of backs, with multiple players splitting the load rather than one star getting the bulk of the carries.
But that strategy has had some unintended human consequences, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the curious case of Ty Johnson.
The 25-year-old shared a video on Instagram last Friday in which he revealed the harsh reality of being a running back in 2023.
In the video, which appears to be a sponsored post for ice bath equipment, Johnson sat in said ice bath and discussed various aspects of his NFL career, which has seen stops with the Detroit Lions and, most recently, the New York Jets.
Johnson said he was recovering from surgery after tearing his pectoral muscle. He claimed he suffered that injury in the offseason and told the Jets about it ahead of time.
“Saw the team doctor. He said, ‘You need to get it fixed,’” Johnson said. “Flew out the next day. Come back happy that I got it done, even though I didn’t want to get it done.”
Shortly thereafter, Johnson was cut.
It’s tough to blame him for feeling a bit miffed. Being told by your employer to get a surgery you don’t want, getting it, and then getting the boot is a brutal hand to be dealt.
But by the same token, the entire sports world can be cutthroat in that regard. Professional sports is a brutal meritocracy, after all.
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Johnson, who has not caught on with another team since being cut by the Jets, never quite fit into a very crowded running back room in New York.
The Jets already had Breece Hall, Michael Carter and Zonovan Knight ahead of him on the depth chart. Days after cutting Johnson, the team used a fifth-round draft pick on another running back, securing a dirt-cheap player on a multi-year deal.
This is the tradeoff for being blessed enough to play professional football.
NFL front offices often treat players more as numeric values against a team’s ledger than as actual human beings, and that happens because of the league’s strict salary cap and exorbitant contracts.
Johnson has a tough road ahead of him if he wants to sign with another team. But the same excess of running backs that makes the position so fungible also creates plenty of opportunities.
As for the Jets, Johnson’s tale came right as a current star, offensive tackle Mekhi Becton, blamed the team for an injury that derailed his 2022 season and said he was forced to practice on a gimpy knee.
Again, for all the fame and fortune that surrounds the NFL, the league also offers up the occasional sobering reminder that it’s still a cold and calculating business.