It seems counter-intuitive to plan to use the best runner in the league a little less -- right?
For other positions, that may be true. But running backs take a vicious beating. Former head coach Bill Cowher, and current head coach Mike Tomlin after him, quite accurately rode Willie Parker until the wheels fell off. Tomlin said they would, and they absolutely did. Quickly. The reality is the average length of an NFL running back's career is less than five years.
Le'Veon Bell is entering his fourth season, and is coming off two knee injuries the last two seasons. The wheels aren't falling off yet, but the lugnuts are probably loose.
Yes, Bell makes the offense far more dynamic when he is on the field. While his backup, 33-year-old DeAngelo Williams, did an outstanding job replacing Bell for the final nine weeks of the season, he's not nearly the receiver Bell is. Bell is also a top-notch blocker. But when you watch him run, you see something devastating to opposing defenses. Put simply, Bell isn't a running back -- he's a weapon of mass destruction.
Maybe it's dumb luck, or maybe it's his never-quit running style, but those two knee injuries are a major concern. And when you have another Clydesdale in the stable, it makes sense to let your leader take the bit out of his mouth now and then.
That hasn't been the philosophy the last two seasons, at least for the games Bell has played. He's been an every-down back, and rightfully so. In 2014, he racked up more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage. That amounted to more than a third of the team's overall offensive production. He gets used and abused. A lot.
If the Steelers were relying solely on Fitzgerald Toussaint to back up Bell, the story would be a little different, and Bell would end up being used out of necessity. But they have a very solid number-two option -- a guy who could easily steal the starting position for a lot of teams right now. And there's no doubt the front office would like the opportunity to try signing Bell to a contract extension. If he's broken down after four seasons, that's not going to happen. They have a more-than-capable understudy waiting in the wings, who is undoubtedly hungrier than ever to show what he can do.
Williams was cut loose by the Panthers, who he had been with for nine years, after the 2014 season. In his Pittsburgh debut season, he outpaced his former Carolina Stablemate, Jonathan Stewart, by three tenths of a yard per carry. In three fewer starts, Williams trailed Stewart by just 82 yards by season's end. He's got to be hungry for more, and for as gracious as he's been to his former employers, you know he wants to keep showing them what they are missing.
The pieces are all in place. Bell could still break 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2016 while handing off an acceptable amount of the workload to Williams, if this offense proves to be as potent as it looks on paper. With the addition of vertical tight end Ladarius Green, combined with an already potent group of receivers, there is no reason both backs can't find ample running room and receiving opportunities in 2016.
So maybe, if the team wants to see Le'Veon Bell on the field in 2017, they should consider ringing that Bell a little less in 2016.