It is possible that if Le'Veon Bell were the sort of running back who could change a game with a single run or define a team’s attack with his persistent battering, he might be worth the impertinent tweets and the pay-me-now ethic and the multiple suspensions and the too-frequent injuries and the consistent tardiness and even the $14.6 million he is likely to cost in 2018 under the NFL's franchise tag.
Bell is not that player, though.
If the Steelers want to find their way back to the Super Bowl, they’ll need to accept that their addiction to Bell's skill set is not worth the exorbitant amount of money it leeches from them.
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Bell excels at every responsibility required of a back: blocking, running, receiving. He is uncommonly productive. There is no disputing this. There have been few better, ever, at the art of picking up the blitz. He rushed for 1,291 yards in 2017, and he caught 85 passes for 655 yards. It would be nearly impossible for any single player to replace those numbers.
But NFL football is not fantasy football. Games are not won on paper, otherwise the Steelers surely would not have lost their playoff game to the Jaguars.
Now, let's talk about what Bell does not do on the field.
He does not break open games. His longest carry in 15 games this season went for 27 yards, and he had just three runs of more than 20 yards. Among the league's top backs, only Indianapolis’ 34-year-old Frank Gore had a shorter season-long run, and 26 backs had more runs of 20-plus yards.
Although it is often said Bell possesses receiver skills so exceptional he could operate as an extra wideout, he rarely functions in that role. His receptions consisted primarily of check-downs by Ben Roethlisberger and produced an average gain of 7.7 yards. Among backs who caught at least 50 passes, that figure tied for eighth place.
Most damning, though, is that Bell does not impose his will upon the defense. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry in 2017, tied for 10th among the league’s top 15 rushers. He carried 321 times, and fully 15 percent of those attempts went for no gain or negative yardage. Add in those that produced fewer than 3 yards — and subtract his three 1-yard touchdowns and six converted first downs — and the share of failed runs rises to 39 percent.
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This particularly was evident in the season’s two biggest games, when a running back who already is paid nearly 50 percent more than anyone else at his position — and is demanding even more — was outperformed by a rookie and played to a draw by a veteran who has been cut twice and is on his fourth NFL team.
Jacksonville's Leonard Fournette gashed the Steelers for 109 yards and three touchdowns in their AFC divisional-round playoff game. When Pittsburgh welcomed New England for their huge December showdown at Heinz Field, Dion Lewis averaged 5.2 yards per carry and kept the Steelers from aiming all their defensive attention at superstar QB Tom Brady.
In those games, Bell was employed as a rusher on 22 total first-down carries, the down on which the Steelers ideally like to use their allegedly overwhelming running game to set up Roethlisberger in advantageous passing situations. Except Bell did not deliver in those circumstances. He went for two or fewer yards on 13 of those attempts. When the Steelers relied on their running game to win first down, they lost nearly 60 percent of the time against the Jags and Pats.
Television commentators marvel at Bell’s “patient” style, but his lack of body lean when running makes him easier to bring down at the point of attack. His upright style minimizes the punishment he absorbs, but also makes him less able to grind out extra yards.
Having already turned down a multi-year contract last offseason that would have entrenched him as the highest-paid back in the league, Bell said he would consider sitting out the 2018 season if he were to be assigned the franchise tag for a second straight season. He issued this threat the week of the Jacksonville playoff game, and then reportedly showed up late for both the day-before walk-through and the game itself.
These alone would be excellent reasons for the Steelers to allow Bell to chase his fortune elsewhere. Pittsburgh could then draft a back willing to power forward for tough yards and, ideally, able to remain on the field as a third-down safety valve. The money necessary to retain Bell would be far better spent on repairing the leaking defense, which allowed 81 points in the team's last two playoff games; of the four conference finalists, no team invested even $5 million in their top back.
It makes more football sense not to devote such an inordinate chunk of next season’s salary cap to a player who too frequently puts the Steelers behind the chains. They’ve been exceedingly patient with Bell. They’ve paid his high price long enough.