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Will Bell’s Wheels Fall Off?

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Le’Veon Bell is having a breakout season. After a solid if unspectacular rookie campaign, Bell has quickly emerged as one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers know this and have adjusted their offense accordingly. However, the question we need to ask is how hot can Bell’s engine run before he blows a gasket?

When Mike Tomlin was hired as head coach in 2007, he was asked what kind of offense he intended to run. In their never-ending desire to get back to “Stiller Football,” Coach T responded that he intended to feed running back Willie Parker “until the wheels fell off.” In the second to last game of the season against the Rams, the wheels did indeed come off for Parker when he suffered a broken leg. The Super Bowl hero would come back to play for two more mediocre seasons but never recaptured his former glory after the injury robbed Fast Willie of his top end speed.

Guess what game the Steelers about to play? Yep, it’s the second to last week of the 2014 NFL season. Here’s hoping beyond hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Sure, injuries can happen at literally any moment. As Cam Newton‘s car accident showed, they can even happen off the field and/or in ways you can least expect. Still, there is a decent amount of evidence which shows running backs have a set shelf life which dissipates in accordance with their workload. The body can only absorb so many hits and backs, by the nature of their position, take more than most.

It’s not like Bell came to the Steelers fresh as a daisy. Parker was an undrafted free agent because his college coaches hated him and barely let him play his senior year. Bell did come out as a junior but in his final season he led the nation with 358 carries. College hits aren’t the same as NFL hits although that’s still a pretty hefty workload.

This year, Bell has already has exactly as many rushing attempts as he had all of last season when he missed the first month of the season with a preseason injury. He’s already set a Steelers record for catches by a running back. With three games to go and LaGarrette Blount playing for the Patriots, he figures to nearly all the workload down the stretch. Rookie Dri Archer, thought to be a potential Darren Sproles type weapon as a third down back, wasn’t even in uniform last Sunday so Bell is their only option as a pass-catching back. Fellow rookie Josh Harris got a handful of garbage time carries but they’ll only use him in meaningful situations if they’re desperate.

240 carries into the year, Bell figures to finish north of the magical 300 yard mark. He’ll likely add 100 catches on top of that total. For comparison purposes, let’s look at two other multi-purpose backs – one with a clean health history and one who has battled injuries. Former Pitt star Shady McCoy is a two time Pro Bowler with the Eagles. He’s only missed a handful of games over his six year NFL career. Perhaps not coincidentally, he’s only carried the ball 300+ times once in his career – last season. Compare him to three time Pro Bowler Arian Foster, who missed three games this year and only played in 8 last year. Foster had 327 and 351 carries in two of his first three seasons.

Bell will be a force to reckon with this season. He probably will be even more dangerous – if that’s possible – next season as well. But what about the next year and the year after that? What could be a brilliant ten year career could very well be cut short by the workload he’s enduring right now. Maybe it doesn’t matter to him. It for damn sure doesn’t matter to the Steelers, who have shown time and time again that winning right now is their only concern.

I’m going to enjoy the Le’Veon Bell Experience for as long as I can. I only hope we all can for many years to come.