By Chris Gazze
With Le’Veon Bell only guaranteed to remain with the Pittsburgh Steelers for one more season, the shouts to “run the wheels off” Bell are getting louder by the minute.
It is easy to understand why after Bell turned down a deal worth more than $12 million per year, according to a report by Tom Pelissero of NFL Network. If he didn’t sign Pittsburgh’s offer this year, what makes anyone think he’ll sign a similar offer next year?
Rather than ease the load for Bell, get the most of his $12.12 million franchise tag this year and run him until the wheels fall off as head coach Mike Tomlin famously did to Willie Parker.
While this approach would probably get the Steelers the most value in terms of touches per dollar, it is not a smart approach and one that Tomlin needs to avoid in 2017.
Bell is one of the most well-conditioned, physically imposing running backs in the NFL, but also one who has not proven to be durable. He’s only played all 16 games in the regular season once and finally played in the playoffs for the first time in three opportunities last season.
Although not necessarily injury prone, Bell has suffered through a foot injury, multiple knee injuries, and a groin injury. With an average of over 24 touches per game over the course of his career, the chance of injury is there for each time he handles the ball.
Perhaps this was no more evident than in his suspension shortened 2016 season. After missing the first three games, Bell was a workhorse for Pittsburgh’s offense and averaged 28 touches in 12 regular season games.
By virtue of clinching the division with a Week 16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Bell got some much-needed rest after averaging over 39 touches over his previous six games.
Bell’s workload didn’t decrease once the playoffs started as he carried the ball 29 times—at one point running the ball 13 of 14 plays—for franchise-record 167 yards in the Wild Card round against the Miami Dolphins. He topped his own record the following week with 170 yards on 30 carries against the Kansas City Chiefs.
After years of waiting, Bell’s presence in the playoffs finally paid off, at least until the AFC Championship game. Following his fifth carry, Bell left the game with a groin injury. Although his absence wasn’t the reason the Steelers lost, it certainly did not help their cause.
Later, we would learn that Bell injured his groin against the Dolphins, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“I continued to play on it,” Bell said after the initial injury vs. the Dolphins. “It wasn’t like it hurt my performance at that time, but I definitely felt it. I went through the week. I wasn’t telling anybody I was hurting, I didn’t want people to get nervous.”
And it didn’t hurt, at least until it counted the most. And people didn’t get nervous, particularly his head coach.
“He was doing a great job of managing it,” said Tomlin, via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com. “It didn’t cause him to miss any practice time, let alone game time. It was something to manage. When you look at the journey that is the season, I think just about every guy down there is dealing with and managing something in an effort to stay on the grass.”
Tomlin continued, “I was aware of it. It wasn’t significant to the point where it affected planning or the anticipation of planning in any way. It’s unfortunate that it became an issue in game.”
That says it all. Tomlin uses a heavy rotation with his defensive lineman and outside linebackers to help preserve their bodies, but it is not an approach he takes with his running backs. Just ask Parker or Rashard Mendenhall. Both backs had seasons with over 300 carries.
The history is there. Tomlin has run the wheels off his running backs one more than one occasion and it is something that he should anticipate and plan for.
Will it be difficult to take off a guy who averaged 157 all-purpose yards per game last season? Absolutely. However, it’s also a move that is necessary to keep Bell on the field when it matters most—the playoffs.