The Pittsburgh Steelers simply moved on without the most dynamic running back in the NFL. All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell did not show up during training camp due to a contract dispute, and he’s still missing in action. The Steelers used the franchise tag on him as opposed to him getting the long-term deal and big payday he covets.
Early this past week the Steelers removed Bell’s name from the team depth chart for Sunday’s home opener against the Chiefs at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert released a statement earlier this month stating he was “disappointed Le’Veon Bell has not signed his franchise tender and rejoined his teammates.”
Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters during a news conference this week that he hadn’t spoken to Bell, and he added, “We’re preparing to play this week with the guys who are here and working — James (Conner) being central to that.”
Bell’s absence this weekend against the Chiefs serve as a sign of how much things have changed in the NFL in regards to the running back position and the idea of the “workhorse back.”
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Bell’s situation is a far cry from 1993 when Emmitt Smith put the Dallas Cowboys between a rock and a hard place with his holdout that carried into the regular season. The team eventually buckled after an 0-2 start, Smith returned, earned league MVP honors and led the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl.
In the current NFL, the New England Patriots seem to indiscriminately plug in a different starting running back every few years. In Tom Brady’s eight Super Bowl appearances, the team has had seven different leading rushers. Five of them never cracked 900 yards rushing for the season.
Charley Casserly, a former NFL general manager with Washington and Houston and current NFL Network analyst, warned during an interview with The Star that the Patriots’ approach is influenced by the team’s philosophy and playing style more than anything else. It’s certainly not a sign, in his mind, of a widespread shift in the game.
“The running game has never been diminished,” said Casserly, who teaches sports management classes at both George Mason and Georgetown University. “That’s been a myth of the media. When you talk to coaches, they’ve never said that. They’ve said the running game in important. You’ve got to be able to close the game out. You’ve got to be able to win game on time of possession. You’ve got to be able to convert on third-and-short. You’ve got to be able to convert inside the red zone.”
While the production from the passing game reached new heights in recent years — passing yards per attempt, completion percentage, use of the shotgun formation and passing yards per game all increased from 2001 to 2016. That didn’t mean running backs became less valued in the game.
In fact, Casserly’s asserts that when people identified a supposed trend of the “diminishing running game” what really was going on was a lack of first-round caliber running backs coming from the college ranks.
In a five-draft span from 2013 through 2017, just five running backs were taken in the first round, compared to five taken in the first round in 2000 alone — an indication of the lull Casserly described.
“This year we had a proliferation of running backs come out. I rated six guys in the first round, legitimate first-round backs,” Casserly said, noting not all six were drafted in the first round. “There are some years I rated nobody. I think the talent is an evolution with college. That affects how people are going to play.
“If you’ve got Leonard Fournette, you’re going to hand him the ball. You’ve got (Todd) Gurley, you’re going to hand him the ball. If you don’t have those guys, you’re probably going to play a platoon system. To me, it was as much college affecting the running game and the style of running backs and the way teams kept platoon backs than any other factor.”
The body type and profile of the workhorse backs haven’t changed, but the increased quantity of smaller backs coming from the college ranks has contributed to the “myth” of the de-emphasis on the running game, according to Casserly.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid has seen a greater understanding of the importance of depth in the NFL since he became an assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers in 1992.
“I saw (Former Green Bay Packers general manager) Ron Wolf do this — and he’s a Hall of Famer,” Reid said. “When I got into the league, I was surprised that more teams didn’t do what we did at Green Bay where we had multiple running backs that can play. That’s a rough, rough position. That position is a short life span for playing football, like a two and a half, three year average. So Ron went out and got guys. The Edgar Bennetts, Dorsey Levenses, and he brought them in and he felt like we could just play them.”
Reid said he has tried to copy that same approach with the teams in Kansas City along with former general manager John Dorsey as well as current general manager Brett Veach. Chiefs fans need just to last season when rookie Kareem Hunt stepped in for injured Spencer Ware and led the NFL in rushing yards.
Reid identified teams taking steps to not rely on one running back to carry the load as “the biggest change” in the approach to the position by those who construct rosters.
“I think it’s trying to find depth, but it’s trying to find depth that you as a coach feel you can put in the game and it’s not going to be a huge drop off,” Reid said. “That’s the challenge. Inevitably one is going to be better than the other, but it’s about where you’re comfortable with it and you know it’s going to be productive. That’s where I think the game is right now just because of how physical that position is and the demands that it is on the body.”
Fifteen years ago, Bell’s holdout might have forced the Steelers’ hand. But now, Conner just steps right into his place. Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton spent all week preparing his defense for the Steelers offense, and that meant examining what the team has done in the past and what it has done so far with Conner filling Bell’s shoes.
“We don’t think it changes anything, what they’re doing schematically,” Sutton said. “They’re not shifting these carries to here or these throws to here. I think Conner might have had (192 yards) in total offense. I think that might have been as high as anything Le’Veon had last year in total offense.”