Le'Veon Bell

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Keidel: Le'Veon Bell Should Push Jets Into Top Half Of NFL's Running Games

Jason Keidel
July 06, 2019 - 9:00 am
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While the NFL has skewed its rules to make throwing the ball — with passing records seeming snapped every year — a peek under the NFL hood reveals that muscular rushing attacks are just as vital. 

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Out of the league's top-11 team rushing attacks, eight of them went to the playoffs. The two teams in last year's Super Bowl - the Rams and Patriots - were in the top five. And seven of the ten teams that scored the most rushing TDs also played in January. 

No doubt that's one of the realities that sparked the Jets to chase Le'Veon Bell, and hand him the $52 million deal that put him in Gang Green's new uniform. Even if new head coach Adam Gase didn't love the dollars in an era where running backs have been devalued, surely he knows running games are nearly as crucial as they were during the black-and-blue years between the 1970s and '90s. 

If strike one is a pitcher's best friend, then an explosive rusher is a quarterback's BFF, particularly someone of Bell's level. The new high-priced signee has shed some of his sheen because of his bitter 2018 season in Pittsburgh, during which he refused a $14.5 million franchise tender and instead benched himself for the entire season. While it was Bell's right to decline the offer, his absence surely helped sink the Steelers from a perennial playoff team to missing the playoffs by one win. 

The discord conceals Bell's true brilliance on the gridiron. We've already forgotten that Bell is five yards from reaching 8,000 faster than anyone in NFL history, which would break Eric Dickerson's longtime record. Before Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott took turns on the throne as the game's best rushers, Bell was branded the best all-around RB in the sport. His unique rushing style - sliding, stopping, then darting through thin gaps in the line - has hypnotized his fans and foes. He was also equally adept at catching the ball in the flat then turning a two-yard pass into a 15-yard gash. 

Meanwhile, the Jets rushed for 1,622 yards last year, 26th in the NFL. They were 29th in rushing yards per attempt (4.0), and tied for 23rd in rushing touchdowns (11). Yet they were still fourth in fumbles, with nine. No doubt the anemic rushing attack made it harder for Darnold to adjust to the breakneck speed of NFL defenses. Without a real rushing threat, opponents will unleash their Terminator sack masters and keep their defenses cloaked well enough to baffle rookie quarterbacks.  

Bell totaled 1,946 yards by himself during his last season in Pittsburgh, including 1,291 rushing yards, 85 receptions, and nine touchdowns. In his first game as a Jet he will break the 8,000-yard barrier in just 63 career games. (Dickerson did it in 64.) 

Now in his sophomore season, Darnold has ballooning expectations. He flashed enough promise to convince the media and masses that he was the right pick by the Jets, that they finally unearthed their first franchise QB in 50 years. And Bell should help keep Darnold and the rest of the Jets’ offense balanced. Last year you had to scroll down 28 spots to find the first Jet among the NFL's rushing leaders. Yet Isaiah Crowell also rushed for fewer yards than Ravens QB Lamar Jackson. 

There are a few flags in Bell's bio to arch at least an eyebrow. He has two drug suspensions in three years, and his Steeler teammates - particularly those on his offensive line - were bitter over broken pledges to return to the field before he skipped the entire 2018 season. There is a resounding sense that Bell is a mercenary, way more worried about his bank than about winning. 

But for all his foibles, Bell's talent is unquestioned. Professionally speaking, Bell is a victim of his time, when running backs are plentiful and the money is spread like butter over two-back attacks rather than the singular halfback we saw for decades, from Jim Brown to Adrian Peterson. Bill Parcells often lamented the shelf-life of a full-time rusher, saying there's only so much tread on their tires. And there's the symbolic curtain on a rusher's career, which most consider to be age 30. 

But Peterson rushed for over 1,000 yards at age 33. Bell is just 27, in the absolute prime of his NFL career and, if healthy and focused, should push the Jets into the top-half of NFL team running games. 

Sam Darnold is only 22, and spent his rookie season flanked by a dubious group of skill players. Crowell was his best rusher, with 685 yards, and Robby Anderson was his best pass catcher, with just 752 receiving yards. Now Darnold can get those yards from just one player, when the bell rings on the 2019 season, and Le'Veon Bell right behind him. 

Twitter: @JasonKeidel