The notion that the Pittsburgh Steelers should let go of Le'Veon Bell is one which I have heard multiple times since the Steelers won a few games after his season ending injury against the Cincinnati Bengals for a second time in 2015.
The first injury to Bell led to a complete debacle as the team lost Bell just six days before they played their first playoff game in which they would lose to the Baltimore Ravens. It showed that the Steelers' offense could not run just with any running back behind Roethlisberger and that there needed to be some player who could provide consistency in the running game and as an adequate receiver from the backfield.
The second time yielded a different result with the Steelers having acquired DeAngelo Williams, a player whom led the team in rushing and scored more than ten touchdowns on the season. Though he also ended up being injured in Week 17, his presence helped provide more stability in Pittsburgh's offense and his replacements proved to be more suitable than Ben Tate, who had but two practices to prepare for a game. Pittsburgh was able to score more than 30 points in five consecutive games, and being the fourth leading NFL scoring offense this season with Bell only being available for five whole games.
That led to some people thinking that maybe his role in the Steelers' offense is not nearly as important as many thought it was after the 2014 season. Pittsurgh sports talk radio has spent multiple segments discussing whether Pittsburgh should try to retain Bell after his rookie contract ends with the conclusion of the 2016-2017 NFL season.
It is more than reasonable to expect for Bell to cost Pittsburgh a pretty penny to keep for the long term after his performances for the Steelers in his first three seasons. That has led some thinkers on the management of Pittsburgh's personnel that maybe with the large group of young talent that is not committed past their rookie contracts yet, David DeCastro, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Martavis Bryant and several others are among that group.
Recently, Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News wrote about why Bell is not worth the investment in salary cap space which Pittsburgh would need to use in order to retain him for another four or more years. In his reasoning he relies upon not only Pittsburgh's offensive success without Bell, but also the fact that the four teams competing for the conference championships this season all lack a superstar running back which they have invested into a large cap space.
This article is about why the Steelers should not follow thoughts like those.
For one, Le'Veon Bell's talent brings a needed resource that would put any NFL offense over the top. The Steelers' offense drives through the arm and head of Ben Roethlisberger. Without him, the talent of Pittsburgh's wide receivers cannot shine in the manner which they have in recent seasons. Antonio Brown has been the best receiver in the NFL for the past three years, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and the even younger Sammie Coates are all talented players which Pittsburgh can rely on as playmakers.
But at the end of the day, if Ben Roethlisberger should be injured or just have an off day, who would be there to save the Steelers' offense? Bell brought an uncanny ability to get open in an emergency for Roethlisberger to use him for a safe pass and somehow break it for a huge gain. That was one of many staples in Bell's resume as a young player for the Steelers. Even when Ben is not there, Bell turns out to be a hero. His insane touchdown run out of the wildcat as time expired that won Pittsburgh's game over San Diego this season can be pointed to as a saving point for 2015 as the Steelers barely made the playoffs.
Bell would not be just any playmaker for Pittsburgh, he would be the ultimate star. Brown's success is amazing and increases with each season, but when the two were side-by-side for a full season, both were instrumental in the Steelers' success. But Bell is the kind of player at the running back position that can carry a team even without an elite quarterback at the helm.
Bell did things that drew comparisons to Walter Payton with his performance in 2014. Imagine what could be possible as he continues to grow in his experience with the NFL and when he gets his inevitable opportunity to shine in the playoffs. Bell could be the key to get Roethlisberger his second two rings the same way Terrell Davis was the key to get John Elway his only two.
Also, just because there are not any teams with major running backs that are competing for a Super Bowl appearance this weekend does not mean that a team with a running back is any less likely to make it this far. One of the biggest reasons Pittsburgh is not able to be one of these four teams is because their superstar running back was not able to be a boost for the offense (and the backup running back, and the superstar receiver, and the superstar center, etc.)
Having a player such as Bell can not only compensate for when Roethlisberger is not at his best or even absent, but it also can be the driving force that makes an offense impossible to stop. The Steelers' offense in 2015 was one of the highest scoring offenses in the franchise's history, second only to the 2014 unit by only a margin of 13 points. Despite that margin, this is even more significant because of the fact that the offense only had Roethlisberger play nine complete games, let alone that Bell only played in five complete games.
Put Bell with this offense that is aging perfectly around Roethlisberger and it may be the greatest unit to ever play the game.
Without Bell, sure, there could be positive gains and even solid chances at Super Bowls for Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the coming years; but they will not have the multi-talented force at running back that can complete the package. Bell, Brown, DeCastro and Pouncey make for four All-Pro players on the Steelers' offense, combine that with Roethlisberger, an overlooked Marcus Gilbert, and the young talents of Bryant, Wheaton and Coates and that is a recipe for absolute success barring significant injuries.
While some may see Bell as "injury prone" because he has been injured at some point in each of his three seasons in the league, the plays that have caused his injuries are much like that of Maurkice Pouncey's; unfortunate circumstances that could happen to any player and not a result of any lack of preparation, will power or fortitude. Any suggestion otherwise in Bell's case is poorly founded.
The other thing to keep in mind is that Pittsburgh may be without Roethlisberger after another four seasons and what Pittsburgh would be ready to do in such a situation. The Minnesota Vikings have benefited from the talents of Adrian Peterson, but the farthest they have ever gone in his tenure was the NFC Championship game in 2009 with Brett Favre at quarterback. Outside of then, this season has been the only other time when the Vikings have won the NFC North with Peterson. Teddy Bridgewater seems to be developing as a young quarterback that may someday be a leader, but what gives him the proper space to grow is having Peterson's talents to rely on.
In another five years, Bell will be 28, two years shy of what Peterson is now. If Pittsburgh would like to still capitalize on this crop of players after Roethlisberger retires, presumably after this final contract concludes, Bell may be the best option to carry the offense when a new quarterback arrives in the future, just as Peterson does now for Minnesota.
While that's very long term thinking, the bottom line is that Pittsburgh has a golden opportunity with Bell on the roster right now. The only way that Pittsburgh should give up Le'Veon Bell is if someone offers a Herschel Walker type deal to the Steelers that could set the franchise up for an even more rich future. Until then, Bell should be on the field for Pittsburgh in 2016 and moving forward.