Perhaps the worst part of the Steelers’ Week 1 loss to the Tennessee Titans was the pitiful performance by the offense when it tried to run the football. The passing game wasn’t anything to celebrate (unless you love bubble screens), but the running game was the perfect storm of a weak offensive line that lost its best player early in the first quarter and a completely mediocre stable of running backs that unable to make chicken salad out of a steaming pile of chicken poop.
We at Steelers Lounge are always carrying the torch for the “running back are interchangeable” crowd, and I suppose that was true on Sunday. They were all equally bad and it didn’t matter which one was in the game.
The great hope at this point is that 2013 second-round draft pick Le’Veon Bell can step into the starting lineup and give the running game the shot in the arm it has desperately needed for two years now. The popular opinion around town at this point — and especially in the stadium on Sunday — is that he is already the best running back on the roster and will be able to step right into the starting lineup upon his return from injury and take over the No. 1 job.
Seeing as how running back is probably the easiest position in the NFL for a rookie to succeed this isn’t a completely crazy idea. Rookie running backs have success all the time in the NFL, and Bell certainly has the size and skill to be a quality NFL back.
But what should we expect from Bell when he is finally able to return for his rookie season?
Here is everything we know about Bell at this point:
– He was a second-round draft pick, a round the Steelers have badly struggled in over the past five years (Limas Sweed, Jason Worilds, Marcus Gilbert, and Mike Adams are the players that have preceded him in that round since 2008. Not one them can be considered an impact player at this point. In case you’re wondering, Sweed was last seen with the Saskatchewan Rough Riders of the CFL until he was suspended by the team for walking out of a practice.)
– He has carried the ball exactly three times in an NFL game, with all of them coming in one preseason game. He gained a total of five yards.
– He has already suffered two different leg/foot injuries during his first five months in the NFL.
– He carried the ball a lot during his final year at Michigan State and comes into the NFL with a little bit of wear and tear on the tires based on what he did a year ago.
How concerning should the latter two be when it comes to A) his durability and B) what he will be capable of in 2013?
Last season Michigan State called on Bell to carry the rock an incredible 382 times, a number that put him 10th on the NCAA’s all-time list for carries in a single season. Add in his 32 catches and four kick returns (seriously? They asked him to return kicks four times?) and he touched the football 418 times last season. That’s a lot of hits.
The folks at Football Outsiders have done some work in the past examining the impact carrying the ball 370 times in a season can have on NFL running backs, and how those players tend to either see a decline in their performance or an injury the following season. Could that workload in 2012 be a contributing factor in Bell’s two injuries this season?
Seeing as how we have an idea as to what impact that sort of workload has on NFL backs, I wanted to take a quick look at players that carried the ball that much in college and then made the jump to the pros and how they did during their rookie season.
After taking a quick stroll through the archives at College-Football-Reference, I found 28 running backs that carried the football at least 340 times in their final year of college. Here is the list, as well as their performance during their rookie season in the NFL.
|Player||Final College Season Carries||NFL Rookie Carries||NFL Rookie Yards||NFL Rookie Average||NFL Rookie Touchdowns|
A few observations:
1) There are a handful of really good players on there, including some Hall of Famers (or future Hall of Famers) like Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen, LaDanian Tomlinson, and perhaps even Ray Rice and Steven Jackson.
2) There are also a lot of players that either struggled in their rookie season, fizzled out as pros, or never even had a chance to play in the NFL
3) Some of the successful backs like Rice, Allen, and Jackson were part-time players as rookies and shared the workload with another back.
None of this means that Bell is destined to be a bust or will have a lost rookie season. But when you combine his workload in college a season ago, the success of similar players in the past, his two injuries, and the fact he will be running behind the football verso of a screen door on a submarine, perhaps we should limit our expectations for what he will be capable of contributing this season.