Does Le'Veon Bell still have it? What the Chiefs are getting in their new running back

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In this file photol, Le'Veon Bell (26) of the New York Jets runs with the ball against the Arizona Cardinals at MetLife Stadium on October 11, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. - Mike Stobe/Getty Images North America/TNS

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Chiefs rank in the top half of the league in both total rushing yards and the efficiency of their running game. That prevented a full-on surge into the halfback market. But Le’Veon Bell is Le’Veon Bell.

Over a four-year stretch, there were few (no?) running backs more productive and perhaps none who more severely altered defensive plans. Bell tallied more than 100 yards per game in every season from 2014-17.

As his career now marches on in Kansas City, he is still only 28, still just three years removed from leading all NFL players in touches.


Does he still have it?

The Le’Veon Bell who so routinely took over games in Pittsburgh never showed up in New York. After signing with the Jets ahead of the 2019 season, a contract that made him the second-highest paid player at his position, Bell was a shell of a his former self. He averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, second worst in the NFL. He didn’t top 100 rushing yards in any of his 17 starts.

The big-play ability? Gone, too. In 264 rushes, Bell never once carried the ball for 20 yards.

Bell arrives in Kansas City with the opportunity for a fresh start, though he cannot join practice until he has six straight days of negative COVID-19 tests. Few things can motivate professional athletes like doubt. Whatever Bell has left talent-wise, the Chiefs figure to get all of it.

But what is left?

The Jets and Chiefs are two NFL franchises on different trajectories with different offensive talents. In theory, a player should be more productive on a Super Bowl championship team than a last-place one.

But it wasn’t good in New York. Blame it on the offensive line? You could. The Jets were among the league’s worst units there last season and this season, according to multiple metrics. Blame it on the play calling? You could do that, too.

At some point, though, Bell owns some of the blame. The size of his share is up for debate. The advanced analytics don’t shy away from pointing the proverbial finger in his direction.

Football Outsiders ranked Bell as the second worst-performing running back in the NFL in 2019 among those with 100 attempts or more, using a stat that “represents value per play over the average running back in the same situations.” Bell was graded at -16.6% in 2019, meaning he was deemed 16.6% worse than the average running back last year.

Bell has appeared in only two games in 2020, but he has actually graded worse in the same metric, now at -25.8%. (For comparison’s sake, Chiefs starter Clyde Edwards-Helaire ranks 32nd in the NFL at -12.9% this year.)

In 2019, Bell’s success rate on rushing downs – the percentage of plays that are deemed successful, taking into account the down and distance — sat at 42%, 40th among 45 qualifying running backs.

You can’t blame it purely on the attention. Yes, on paper, Bell seemed to be the Jets’ best weapon and therefore the subject of opposing defenses’ awareness. The statistics didn’t bear that out. Bell lined up against boxes with eight or more defenders 17.4% of his snaps, according to NextGen Stats. There were 27 NFL running backs who saw more frequent attention in the box.

In a new advanced metric, NextGen attempts to quantify the “expected” yards gained on any particular rushing play. A year ago, Bell was credited with 99 fewer rushing yards than expected, fourth worst in the league.

Bell possesses a unique running style. He’s patient, patient, patient. It killed the Chiefs in previous meetings, taking advantage of a power-based offensive line in Pittsburgh.

That style didn’t jive with a Jets offensive line that regularly got beat. The Jets averaged 0.7 rushing yards before contact, the worst in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Bell has never been known for his ability to run through tackles but rather an ability to elude them.

Bell’s numbers show his past, not necessarily his future, though one could certainly make a case they are the best predictor of reasonable expectations. But the Chiefs are betting on a resurgence in a new scheme. They aren’t counting on him to be the Steelers-form of Le’Veon Bell — in which Football Outsiders ranked him the top running back in 2015 and among the top-11 in four straight seasons. They don’t need him to be, either. At least publicly, they continue to commend Edwards-Helaire.

Bell is a complementary piece, not the star of the show. The Chiefs still hope to unlock his very best.

The question is whether his very best is still in there somewhere after a disappearing act in New York. The Chiefs deemed it worth finding out.


©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)