Lichtenstein: Douglas’ First Offseason As Jets GM Should Include Plan To Sell Bell  

Running Back Can't Be Difference Maker On This Team

Steve Lichtenstein
December 09, 2019 - 1:18 pm

The following is not an overreaction to one game. The manner in which the Jets squeaked by the equally pathetic Dolphins, 22-21, at MetLife Stadium on Sunday did not sway me in any direction.

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The evidence, however, is now all in.

The Jets need to trade Le’Veon Bell this offseason.

Bell is a gifted running back, worthy of his two All-Pro honors over his five seasons in Pittsburgh. He’s clearly better than either Bilal Powell or Ty Montgomery (and both, in the aggregate), the two backups who stepped up Sunday while Bell was convalescing with the flu.

New York Jets running back Le'Veon Bell (26) carries the ball against the Buffalo Bills during the first half at MetLife Stadium
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Powell/Montgomery tandem wouldn’t have been as effective if the Jets were facing the juggernaut Ravens, their opponent on Thursday night, instead of meek Miami.  Neither would Bell, for that matter.

And that’s the point.

I was never on board with prior Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan signing Bell to a four-year, $52.5 contract as a free agent in March. Bell can’t be a difference maker on this team, certainly not when the salary difference is eight figures. He has $13 million guaranteed in 2020.

Offloading that contract won’t be easy for new GM Joe Douglas. The Daily News reported that Bell was on the block prior to the Oct. 29 trade deadline. The less of the guarantee that Douglas is willing to absorb as dead money, the worse the offered consideration will be in any prospective deal. 

Douglas has to try harder this offseason. Despite their fourth victory in five games Sunday, the Jets (5-8) are miles away from relevancy. They need to stockpile draft picks to fill gaping holes all over the depth chart. They need to reallocate their salary cap so they aren’t spending significant sums on the least impactful positions.

And when Adam Gase is your head coach, running backs, even elite ones like Bell, aren’t that impactful.

There are plenty of folks who point to Gase’s underusage of Bell as a factor in various defeats. They were screaming that Bell had only had 10 carries in last week’s humiliating loss to the previously winless Bengals.

Well, here are Bell’s stats in the Jets’ four victories:

Rush attempts per game: 15.5

Rush yards per game: 48

Average gain: 3.1

In eight defeats, it’s:

Rush attempts per game: 15.1

Rush yards per game: 49.6

Average gain: 3.3

Want to take out the three games with semipro-level Luke Falk at QB when Sam Darnold was out with mononucleosis? Fine. That yielded results showing Bell was actually more efficient (3.75 yards per rush) when the Jets lost the other five games than when they won, albeit on fewer touches.

Receiving yards per game were also immaterially different between wins and losses (32.2 versus 34.2 yards per game, respectively), though Gase’s wrinkle to use Bell as a wideout on some plays in recent contests has made his average yards per reception spike in wins (10.7 versus 6.4). Still, in the games the Jets won, Bell received no fewer than 15 touches and no more than 22. In defeats, Bell’s touches ranged from a high of 31 in Week 2 versus Cleveland (Darnold’s first absence) to a low of 11 in Jacksonville in Week 8.    

In other words, when the Jets have won, it wasn’t because Bell was exceptional.

Powell received 21 touches Sunday before exiting on the Jets’ final series with an ankle injury. Though no update was given about his X-rays, Powell was walking without a limp and did not have anything on his ankle in the locker room.

Would Sunday’s result have been the same with Bell taking those Powell reps? Maybe. There’s no denying that the two have different running styles, though.

Bell averages 2.88 seconds behind the line of scrimmage this season, per NFL NextGen stats. That may be only the 15th most patient among qualified backs and down from his 3.1 average in his final season as a Steeler, but it’s still not conducive to running behind an offensive line that, to put it mildly, has struggled with consistency.

Powell hit the holes hard Sunday, averaging just 2.48 seconds behind the line of scrimmage. That might not seem like much of a variance — and the Jets’ offensive linemen I talked to howled that it was irrelevant — but this was a case when the eye test was backed up by the numbers.

The Jets came out with a running mentality and topped 100 yards rushing for only the second time this season.  Powell led the way with 74 yards on 19 carries (3.9 average).    

Powell did most of his damage in the first half, accumulating 48 yards on 10 rushes as New York grabbed a 16-9 lead. In the second half, Gase said, the Jets got too predictable trying to protect leads. 

“When (Darnold) threw the interception, I probably got a little out of whack there, trying to make the perfect call, which didn’t help, because then we were leaving us in third-and-not-good-enough situations,” Gase said.

Still, the Jets were able to rally twice from fourth-quarter deficits without their supposed best player, their go-to weapon. Darnold instead spread the ball around to different receivers in the passing game. That’s how modern offenses work. Even rarely used Vyncint Smith made a huge 37-yard play to ignite the final drive.    

Yes, it took a controversial (and correct) defensive pass interference replay reversal to get the Jets into position for kicker Sam Ficken’s 44-yard field goal at the final gun.  And yes, Miami came into the game at 3-9 and with the league’s second-worst defense versus the run, allowing 143.5 yards per game. The opponent matters. 

But whether such opponent is a bottom-feeder like Miami or top-tier like Baltimore, Bell is simply a luxury on the Jets, one they should sell off before next season.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.