It’s hard at this point to remember that Le’Veon Bell was one of the NFL’s most prominent offensive threats not too long ago. Bell totaled 7,997 yards from scrimmage from 2013 through 2017, his first first five NFL seasons, and only LeSean McCoy had more with 8,016. Then, Bell sat out the entire 2018 season with a contract dispute and then signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the Jets in 2019. The marriage between player and team didn’t work out for a couple of reasons — Bell never really seemed to get his legs under him after the year off, and 95% of the people reading this could design a better offensive game plan than Jets head coach and alleged offensive genius Adam Gase could.
Adam Gase avoid questions on how he used Le’Veon Bell. “It’s irrelevant now.”
He also wouldn’t say Bell could be a productive back somewhere else. “We’ll see what happens.” #Jets https://t.co/wUwvHGlokC
— Al Iannazzone (@Al_Iannazzone) October 15, 2020
The Jets released Bell on Tuesday, and after a few teams gave him the once-over, Bell signed with the Chiefs on Thursday. It’s an interesting fit if you look at Bell as purely a running back — the Chiefs have rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Damien Williams has opted out for the 2020 season, and at this point, Patrick Mahomes ranks second on the team in rushing yards with 129, and first in rushing touchdowns with two. Bell can help in a rotation sense in that regard.
But there’s another likely reason that the Chiefs’ franchise quarterback is happy about this move, and it’s not because Bell will experience a rushing renaissance in Kansas City. Whether he does or not is relatively irrelevant.
Again, you have to go back a ways, but where Bell can really add to Kansas City’s offense is in the passing game. Because at his peak, Bell was one of the better receiving backs of his generation, able to threaten defenses from anywhere in the formation from the backfield to the “X” iso receiver spot. From 2013 through 2017, no running back had more receptions (312), targets (397), and receiving yards (2,660) than Bell, and Bell wasn’t just catching screens and swing passes out of the backfield. That he wasn’t used as that kind of asset in New York’s offense could not matter less, because the divide in playcalling talent between Gase and the Chiefs’ offensive staff — head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy — could not possibly be wider.
So, as long as we’re in the Wayback Machine, let’s travel to 2018, when the Chiefs had Damien Williams and Kareem Hunt as their primary running backs. In that season, Mahomes’ first as a starter, Reid loved working with “21” personnel (two running backs, two receivers, and one tight end) because it allowed Hunt to use his own receiving skills to tear defenses apart. Like Bell, Hunt is the kind of back who can nuke a defender for big plays in the passing game from anywhere in the formation.
Since the team released Hunt in November, 2018 following video that showed Hunt punching and kicking a woman in February of that year, the Chiefs have not enjoyed a similar type of back in their offense, and the numbers bear that out. In 2018, per Sports Info Solutions, Mahomes attempted 28 passes out of “21” personnel, completing 18 of those passes for 296 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.
In 2019 and 2020 combined, Mahomes has attempted 12 passes out of “21” personnel, completing eight for 130 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Edwards-Helaire has potential as an across-the-formation receiver, and that’s one reason the Chiefs took him in the first round, but as great has Mahomes has been since Hunt was released, he has not had a running back as a receiver like Bell to add to the passing game.
What makes Bell special in this regard? Take this 19-yard touchdown reception from Ben Roethlisberger in the 2017 divisional playoffs against a Jacksonville defense that may have the been the NFL’s best. Bell and Antonio Brown are running a switch off the line of scrimmage against man coverage, and as a result, linebacker Telvin Smith has to carry Bell to the end zone by himself. Smith was a good coverage linebacker at that time, but not good enough to match Bell’s understanding of the subtleties of route-running, and his ability to make the contested catch.
And here, against the Ravens in Week 14 of the 2017 season, Bell is wide left out of an empty formation, and he’s covered one-on-one by safety Tony Jefferson. Again, Bell shows an unusual understanding of the subtleties of the route for a running back — he leverages Jefferson with the slant, and then breaks three tackles to get to the end zone.
Again, Bell is working in concert with Antonio Brown to his side — now, imagine him lined up wide in the Chiefs’ offense, and an opposing defense having to part out a route combination that includes Bell and Kareem Hunt. Good luck with that.
So yes — while Le’Veon Bell has the potential to help the Chiefs’ running game, it’s as the replacement for Kareem Hunt the team has sought for nearly two years that could prove his ultimate value to his new team.
And this, I expect, is why Andy Reid has a smile on his face right now.