Le'Veon Bell is still not playing. The crux of the issue, it appears, after his agent’s comments, is concern that Pittsburgh will overuse him before he heads out the proverbial door. Their interests and his are not aligned. They want to win but with no regard to what his future looks like.
He cannot get more money from Pittsburgh. He either shows up and plays under the franchise tag and gets $800,000 per game, or he doesn’t. But in order to accrue a season and get to his free agent deal, he cannot just sit all year. He will have to report eventually.
So I’m here to say that him sitting out games will not really accomplish what he is hoping, and will not prevent overuse.
I’ve done plenty of research on running backs, injury rates, and overuse. By sitting out, all he is doing is preventing injury in the games he otherwise would be playing. But since he has to eventually play this year, Pittsburgh can still use him heavily once he’s in, and it won’t decrease his injury risk that he also didn’t play in September. I wrote about the “Curse of 370” back in 2010. I wrote how individual high workload games are the problem.
To show that it doesn’t matter much for Bell if he is playing in November and December and getting a high number of touches, as to whether he sat out games in September, let’s use history.
I found 65 cases, via a search at pro-football-reference.com, of running backs who had 200+ touches in the second half of the season over the last 30 years. When I sorted them by their touches in the first half of the season, there isn’t much difference.
Those that had fewer than 135 touches in the first half of the season averaged 12.6 games played the next year, and 4 of 20 suffered a season-ending injury by game 6 of the following year. Those that also had 200+ touches in the first half of the season averaged 11.8 games played the next year (but it rises to 12.4 by just removing Ricky Williams, who walked away from football the next year). Three of 19 players who had high workloads both in the first and second half had season-ending injuries in the first 6 games of the next year.
The evidence supports that high workloads can cause injuries. Both those rates of games played, and a season-ending rate by game 6 of above 15% for the guys who had high workloads over the second half of a season, are worse than the typical starting back. But the problem here is that the Steelers have every reason to use him up for however many games he does play, and there’s no indication that his injury risk is any less when that happens.
The best solution for Bell–but it’s now getting late in the game, is to somehow work with the Steelers now about working on a reasonable touch count in exchange for getting in. But I’m not sure how you enforce that against the Steelers (it might be worth it to get him in, though). It’s not like Le’Veon Bell hasn’t been heavily used–he’s averaged 25.5 touches per game played over the last four years. What he wants to avoid is what happened to DeMarco Murray, or what happened to Larry Johnson, or what happened to Jamal Anderson (234 touches over the final 8 games of 1998, torn ACL early the next year).