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The Jets Need to Change Their Le’Veon Bell Approach: Either Build the Offense Around Him or Trade Him

New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Around a year ago I had Tony Pauline as a guest on a podcast, and he made an observation that the Jets signing Le’Veon Bell was a bit of an awkward fit. He noted that Bell thrived primarily on run plays with gap or man blocking concepts while Adam Gase liked to call run plays with zone blocking.

I did not realize how accurate this statement was until the last few days when I did a deep dive on Bell’s productivity.

I looked at all of his runs from 2016 and 2017, his final two years with the Steelers, that gained 10 yards or more. Only 7% of them came on zone blocking runs. I knew Bell was primarily a gap/man runner, but I didn’t realize the extent to which this was true.

This led me to examine Bell’s 2019 carries with the Jets. I rewatched every single run he had last year. (And nobody should ever subject themselves to reliving the 2019 Jets run game.)

It isn’t always easy to differentiate zone run from man/gap runs. There are man/gap plays that look similar to zone runs. The difference lies in some of the details. Without being in the huddle, I can’t 100% guarantee that I got every single type of run right. After watching plays a few times, I think I was able to figure them out, though. There are nuanced aspects of blocking assignments, offensive line techniques, and which defender the back is reading when he makes his cut that tip off a man/gap run opposed to a zone run.

Even though zone runs did not account for much of Bell’s productivity late in his Pittsburgh career, 40% of his runs with the Jets were zone in 2019 according to my calculations.

He averaged only 2.4 yards per zone attempt. He averaged 3.7 yards per attempt on non-zone runs (eliminating misdirection plays where blocking didn’t matter and laterals on screen plays that technically count as rushing attempts). That is an enormous difference.

It begs the question as to why the Jets didn’t adapt their offensive approach to Bell. Most of Bell’s production came on man/gap plays. There is evidence that suggests he wasn’t as effective running on zone plays. Why would concepts that produce such ineffective results take up as much as 40% of his carries? Why wasn’t the offensive system tailored to provide him with more familiar and friendly play calls?

After a loss to Jacksonville around the midway point of the 2019 season there were reports that Bell and head coach Adam Gase had a meeting to clear the air about his usage.

It seems like it made a difference for about a half. In the first half of the Jets’ next game against Miami, only one of Bell’s nine rushing attempts was a zone run.

In the second half of the game four of Bell’s first six carries were zone runs. (The Jets had two subsequent runs that were essentially give up plays in garbage time.)

In the first half Bell averaged 3.8 yards per carry. On those six meaningful second half runs he averaged 1.5 yards.

In that first half against the Dolphins and games before it, 35% of Bell’s runs were on zone plays. In that second half against Miami and after, 45% of Bell’s runs were on zone plays.

A chat that was supposed to help the Jets figure out how to use Bell resulted in less run plays with favored concepts.

In a postseason press conference Gase said the following about Bell’s role in the offense.

I think that was a conversation we had a couple weeks ago, we talked about looking at some of the stuff they did in Pittsburgh and talking through some of the things he’s comfortable with in the run game, especially early in the off season of trying to focus on those types of runs, and pass game, and we both are like, we’ll be able to take a break and then when we come back we can really hone in on some of those things that maybe we missed or we did too much of that he wasn’t really comfortable with.

I think it goes without saying, but these are the types of things that should have been figured out in the spring and the summer as the Jets were installing and designing their offense. I think it’s difficult to understand how a team could be one year in and still searching for ideas how to use a player like this.

Do I blame the play calling for the poor Jets run game? I don’t think it is fair to say it was the main reason for the struggles. The first, second, and third reasons were bad offensive line play. The Jets couldn’t run block effectively last year (or in the years preceding 2019 for that matter). Bell’s 3.7 average per attempt on non-zone runs is quite poor.

I do think it is fair to say that the playcalling took a bad situation and made it worse. There is a big difference between averaging 3.7 yards per attempt and 2.4 yards per attempt. 3.7 is bad. 2.4 is the level where you don’t even belong in the NFL. There is a point where any play caller has to adapt to the reality of the situation. Even if you prefer doing things one way, you might not have the personnel to do it that way.

Of course in the bigger picture this whole saga illustrates the dysfunction of the Jets organization in 2019. Bell was the team’s highest profile signing in free agency and came with a hefty price tag. In a well-run organization the general manager and head could would have been on the same page. If the team was going to give out a big contract to Bell, the head coach would have been on board and had a plan to maximize this player’s ability.

As we all know, the Jets were not a well-run organization at this time last year. Gase and then-general manager Mike Maccagnan did not see eye to eye on many things, including Bell. Maccagnan reportedly signed Bell over the objections of his head coach.

In retrospect I don’t think Maccagnan really was focused on cohesive team-building. I see three possible explanations.

  1. He had painted himself into a corner with years of poor roster building had to roll the dice on a risky player who had shown top end ability. (And it would be revisionist history to say Bell wasn’t risky even at the time of the signing. He had just sat out an entire year.)
  2. He was making offers to every free agent available to fill a barren roster whether the player fit or not.
  3. Knowing his job security was precarious, he wanted to make a splash signing Bell to generate good headlines and please ownership.

Based on what we now know, I would guess there is a strong possibility it was a combination of the three.

Ultimately it left the Jets with a big money running back and no plan to maximize his ability. Sometimes people wonder what difference it makes if an NFL franchise is dysfunctional. You’re looking at the cost right here.

Maccagnan eventually lost his job, and Gase gained power within the organization. Everybody has to get some of the blame for a situation like this, though. When success depends on two people working together, nobody can escape fault for failure to do so. That also goes for the owner who allowed the situation to reach a breaking point.

When it comes to the merits of giving Bell a big money deal, there is evidence that suggests Gase might have been right. But Bell was signed. At that point it is your job to make the best of the situation.

I don’t think anybody can say the Jets maximized Bell’s ability in 2019. We discussed some of the playcalling issues in the run game, but I think a more relevant criticism was just how little the Jets got out of Bell in the passing game.

At the running back position Bell is universally considered one of the top receivers in this generation. The Jets didn’t utilize Bell’s flexibility nearly enough in 2019.

Glenn Naughton at Jet Nation provided these numbers back in December.

In his last season with the Steelers, Bell was lined up as a slot receiver 77 times for Mike Tomlin with another 55 snaps on the boundary. That’s a total of 132 snaps at wide receiver that contributed to Bell finishing the season with over 600 yards through the air. Under Gase, Bell has lined up in the slot just 26 times with 36 reps on the outside.

I’m not even sure the Pittsburgh numbers accurately reflect the situation. The Steelers had plenty of weapons on offense when Bell was there. They didn’t really need to use him aligned wide or in the slot frequently. If anything a struggling Jets offense without premium skill players probably should have utilized him more in this way.

Doing something like this is partially to get Bell favorable matchups. He is typically going to have a good chance one on one against a safety or a linebacker running a route. There aren’t many defenders at those positions comfortable in coverage.

More than that, it is the type of thing that can help a young quarterback. He has to do less thinking if he can spot a matchup he wants to attack presnap. Beyond that, putting Bell out wide or into the slot is a presnap coverage identifier.

A safety or a linebacker usually wouldn’t be in the slot or out wide unless he was playing man coverage. Safties and linebackers are likely to draw a man assignment against a running back. So if Sam Darnold sees a safety or a linebacker across from Bell, it would tell him the defense is likely in man coverage.

On the other hand, a cornerback typically wouldn’t draw a running back in man coverage. He would be out wide in zone coverage, though.

Seeing Bell out wide with a corner across from him would be a presnap indicator of zone coverage. Darnold can assess the alignment of the defense and figure out which type of zone coverage the opponent is playing.

Using backs like this makes the quaterback’s life easier, and isn’t that the whole point right now for the Jets?

On that note, paying big money to somebody like Bell should mean running the offense through him then using those tendencies to trick and exploit the defense. If the scheme goes through a back, the defense should be anticipating run plays. This should create opportunities using play action.

Play action helps the quarterback by moving defenders out of throwing lanes.

Take this play by Kirk Cousins.

This play moved defenders to create a wide throwing lane and an easy throw. This is much easier to execute than full field reads that lead to tight window passes.

Quarterbacks like Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, and yes Gase’s former protege Ryan Tannehill were widely praised for their production in 2019 and awarded the title “franchise quarterback” as a result. The truth is more complicated. These quarterbacks were helped a lot by their coaching staffs who fed them steady diets of these passes. They ranked in the top seven in the NFL in the rate of passes that came from play action (crunching numbers from Pro Football Reference on quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts).

Darnold had only the 23rd highest rate of play action passes. You don’t want your offense to require a young quarterback to play heroball on every snap. An offense needs to do things to make his life easier. The Jets never seemed interested in building around Bell to create these advantages.

(I know somebody is going to say that play action wouldn’t work without an effective run game. While it is true Cousins, Garoppolo, and Tannehill could both lean on excellent rushing attacks, studies have shown there is little correlation between run game effectiveness and play action success.)

Now let’s get to the main point here. This isn’t about the past. You didn’t need me to tell you the Jets struggled on offense last year and the way the things were schemed hurt more than they helped. What matters is the future.

Bell is set to count approximately $15.5 million against the salary cap in 2020. That’s the type of money you pay a premium player. At that money everything in the offense should be built through this player. The playcalls should be based on what he does best. The way the player is deployed should take full advantage of his reputation and abilities to make life easier for everybody else on offense.

In 2019 the Jets did not utilize Bell in a way that would ever make their investment worth it. They have a choice to make now. If they decide Bell should stay, everything should run through him on offense. If they aren’t willing to commit to this principle, they should look to dump his salary in a trade. Bell won’t be worth close to the money he is being paid. Finding a back capable of doing the things Bell was asked to do in 2019 should be far less expensive.

I personally think a case could be made either way. I believe a new regime has the prerogative to build the team it envisions. Bell’s case is also different from that of Jamal Adams. Adams is a premium 24 year old player who should be with the Jets another eight to ten years and likely will outlast the current coaching staff. Bell is 28 at a position that does not age gracefully. And while it is difficult to complete separate a running back’s performace from offensive line play, there were some signs of trouble. Once you get past the first five yards or so, the running back’s ability takes over. Bell’s biggest run was 2019, and Football Outsiders calculated that the Jets were near the bottom of the league after the 5 yard mark. If the Jets want to move on from Bell, I think there would be a valid argument to do so.

I might even lean in that direction based on what we know right now. Gase throughout his career has gained a reputation for not adapting. If he was going to do so, it probably would have happened in the first year. Additionally, if I was to make an educated guess I would say that the free agents the Jets signed on the offensive line make it likely we will see a running game steeped in zone concepts.

What would a Bell trade look like? Some might not like it, but it might be close to a pure salary dump. Probably the best comparison in recent history for a Bell trade would be the deal the Eagles made with the Titans in 2016 for DeMarco Murray. Murray was a big free agent signing for Philadelphia by Chip Kelly in 2015. A year later Kelly was gone. A new front office came in, which included Joe Douglas. The Eagles and Titans swapped fourth round picks for Murray.

I am sure many people would get angry at such a return for Bell, but the name of the player needs to be eliminated from the discussion. You aren’t trading away the Pittsburgh Bell if the Jets intend to use him the same way they did in 2015. You are trading away an ordinary player. You aren’t acquring a pick. You are shedding salary and creating cap space that can be rolled into future years for a better investment.

The Jets could also keep Bell and actually build through him.

The worse of all worlds would be keeping Bell and not changing how things were done from last year. That would be low impact at a high price.