The Demise of the CFL RunningBack Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

The 2023 CFL Free Agent frenzy is slowing down to a trickle. My team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were active players in the FA market this year. But this topic is not about that.

Two weeks ago I was very surprised to learn that the Ti-Cats were rumoured to have set aside a portion of their budgeted Salary Cap funds to pursue James Butler [Iowa], formerly of the BC Lions. There is only so much money to spend under the cap, and it was not that long ago that CFL GM's would find much better value at that position by signing 2 or 3 American RB's from their Neg List to compete for the starting HB position, instead of using a lucrative contract offer to lure a RB from another team.

This would generally be true of all teams in the CFL, but in Hamilton there is the additional factor, that their Offensive gameplans have not really featured a true running game since Tommy Condell arrived on the scene with Kent Austin in 2013. I recall that Kent Austin once commented on the fact that CJ Gable [USC], was the most reliable "blitz pickup" RB that he had ever seen in the CFL . . . that was what CJ was expected to contribute to the offence. I have not confirmed this, but I don't think the Tiger-Cats have had a player record 1000 yds. rushing since Troy Davis [Iowa St.] achieved that milestone several times about 20 years ago.

Shortly after Troy Davis' move to the Eskimos, the 'Cats thought they had a star RB in Jesse Lumsden [McMaster], unfortunately his promising career was derailed by a series of injuries.

But the greater CFL has not abandoned the running game as a whole. Of course, I don't think any teams are as dedicated to the running game like the Mike Pringle era Montreal Alouettes were, but the running game has not disappeared from the CFL altogether. Even though passing has become much more prevalent in both the CFL & the NFL, the two most recent examples of "dominant" CFL running attacks would be the Andrew Harris Winnipeg Blue Bombers, & the Jon Cornish Calgary Stampeders before that. In both cases, the running attacks featured Canadian RB's, and they each lead the CFL in rushing for several years in a row.

So getting back to the original topic, of why the Tiger-Cats would feel the need to lure a RB away from the BC Lions :

  1. first of all, clearly, the Tiger-Cats intend to reintroduce a Running attack to their Offence in 2023; and
  2. perhaps equally clearly, they were not confident that they would be able to recruit such a talent from south of border. But why would that be?? What has changed ??

A couple of things that are contributing, might be:

  • the CFL now finds itself in a position where it is competing with the XFL & the USFL for American football players. In a recent press conference, Orlondo Steinauer admitted that it has been more of a challenge to attract new American talent to the CFL this year.
  • the NFL attitude towards RB's seems to have changed; of course there are exceptions like the Tennessee Titans w/ Derrick Henry, & NY Giants w/ Soquan Barkley, but most NFL teams are moving away from an offence that depends upon a single "feature" back, and have moved to a 2 back system, where the carries are split between 2 RB's. And then to compound matters further, many teams believe offering a big contract to a RB after 5 years in the NFL, is a poor business decision. When these 2 factors are combined, it means the NFL is churning thru RB's with greater frequency than in years past.

I believe all of this combined means the CFL is having a harder time attracting talented RB's to come North to the CFL.

Curious to hear your thoughts . . . perhaps the RB position will more commonly be handled by Canadians ??


I think the Spring leagues will have a negative effect on our ability to recruit and maintain talent. I think Wes Hill would have been a great RB to keep in Hamilton instead of spending more on Butler (although I like Butler). And Wea Hill of course signed with the USFL.

The teams that designate the RB position to a Canadian are the teams that don't have running as their focus. Outside of Andrew Harris of course. He's the exception. Having a competent Canadian RB opens up options elsewhere. So I think there's going to be a trend that way.

My guess on James Butler is Ed Hervey settling a score with Neil McEvoy and recruiting players he had previously recruited. Joel Figueroa might be another as was Lamar Durant.

Flip side of a vendetta is that the players have to play well enough to validate bringing them in.

Further to my comments about how the attitudes towards the value of feature RB's has changed in the NFL, I attach an article that mentions the Contract Values associated with the Franchise Tag for each position on NFL rosters.

The RB position has the lowest value of all starting positions in the NFL. In fact the only position with a lower Franchise Tag value belongs to the placekickers & punters !!

My oh my . . . how things have changed !!

Do you remember the name Le'Veon Bell ?? In 2018, when Le'Veon Bell refused to accept the 2nd consecutive Franchise Tag designation from the Pittsburgh Steelers, and advised the Steelers that he would sit out the entire 2018 season if they did not meet his Contract demands or trade him, he publicly stated that he was taking a stand for his fellow RB's, to restore that value of that position in the NFL. I am going to conclude that he failed on several fronts . . .

Running Backs are now considered a disposable commodity in the NFL.

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No, I don't think this is the case at all. In fact, just the opposite. Ed's relationship with Lions' GM Neil McEvoy was pivotal in bringing Dane Evans to the West Coast, so I don't believe there is spite or vendetta there (Source here:

I just think McEvoy and Campbell decided that paying Butler what he's worth (or believes he's worth) wasn't an efficient use of the $5.51M salary cap. They have signed a couple of NFL-experienced backs and Tavien Feaster from the Als' roster.

Will they be able to replace Butler? Who knows. Butler does a lot of things really well but isn't exceptional at one aspect as a feature back. He gains good leverage and can identify a blitz, catches well out of the backfield, and is tough to bring down once he gets a head of steam. I wouldn't say he has breakaway speed, but he will get you a tough 5 yards.

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You need a decent running game to be a dominant team in this league. There are hundreds of talented backs looking for work. Many factors can determine a teams ability to run the ball well….a crappy starting QB, the o-line, coaching.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Appreciate your insight on the matter.

My perception was of a rift following Wally's retirement and the upheaval and abrupt change in succession planning that resulted in Hervey and Claybrooks being shown the door. A situation that was compounded with the ill health and ultimate passing of David Braley.

To my knowledge the Lions have never held an appreciation ceremony for Wally which I also found odd. With the new ownership in place I am guessing those matters would be in the past now.

As for the running backs I never thought of James Butler as a a great back and similar in nature to Don Jackson who he replaced in Hamilton. At one point I thought William Stanback might end up in BC after they signed Fletcher.

Wes Hills might be the one to go after after the XFL season is over.

There is some economics at work. Supply and demand. There is essentially one starting running back per team and lots of candidates. Better being a defensive back - five times the demand.