How Le’Veon Bell will be more valuable to Jets than Adam Gase thinks
When Mike Maccagnan was fired as general manager of the New York Jets, there were reports head coach Adam Gase had disagreements with Maccagnan over some transactions, including how much was paid to acquire Le’Veon Bell. Running back has recently been viewed as a position not as valuable in today’s NFL than it once was, but the Jets still gave Bell a four-year, $52.5 million deal.
Gase recently tried to address the perception that he was behind Maccagnan’s firing, and also spoke about Bell’s contract.
Adam Gase on Le'Veon Bell's contract: "The contract was what it was. Everybody can criticize the contract all you want, but he's here. I'm excited he's here … When you get a chance to coach a great player, I'm excited for that opportunity."
But did the Jets overpay? "No."
— Ralph Vacchiano (@RVacchianoSNY) May 23, 2019
Gase’s comments, despite the denial, suggest that he is not happy about the contract, though as Chase Stuart points out, the Jets are not actually out of line with their cap expenditure at the position. The Jets are sixth, while two of the teams ahead of them in cap charges at running back are the two teams that met in last year’s Super Bowl.
Though Gase may feel like the Jets overspent on Bell, the running back could prove more valuable to the team than he thinks or realizes.
In fact, Le’Veon Bell is likely to provide a big impact … on Sam Darnold’s passing efficiency numbers.
The relationship between a running back and the passing game can go any number of directions, and in the end it may lead to a conclusion that the running back does not matter and is a fungible position. Sometimes, a star quarterback can open up opportunities for a back, and sometimes a star back can influence coverage decisions by the defense, which can increase the quarterback’s success rate. I do not buy the argument that a running back is any more fungible than about 10 other positions in football; we just measure it more. I wrote about that eight years ago when pointing to examples of how many of the best quarterbacks happened to have their best years when they had better running backs (as measured by career production).
But let’s get more specific and talk young quarterbacks. There have been 72 seasons since 1998 where a second-year quarterback has thrown the minimum qualifying number of passes. What if we examine the quality of the running backs, not by looking what their specific yardage totals were that season, but by assessing them by career yards from scrimmage per game to get a sense of who played with the best and worst group of backs?
I weight-adjusted the backfields by both attempts and career yards per game for every back that got a carry. This, for example, distinguishes cases where a prominent back was later in his career and in a time share (or injured) and at peak. The two best backfields for a second-year quarterback by this measure were the 1999 Colts with Edgerrin James getting almost every touch, and the 2002 Chargers with LaDainian Tomlinson. The worst was 2003 Washington with Patrick Ramsey at QB, where the backfield was led by Trung Canidate and averaged 24.3 career yards from scrimmage per game across every carry.
Put all those together, and here are the results, divided into groups of 12 teams by tiers, based on the average career yards per game by the backfields. The output is ANYA+, a normalized score for Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt where 100 is league average. (I also include what that ANYA+ average for each tier would translate into with 2018 numbers).
Second-year QB ANYA+ averages, sorted by the average career yards from scrimmage per game of their running backs pic.twitter.com/51Z21jgKjl
— Deja Avenue (@Deja_Avenue) May 23, 2019
Does having a top running back seem to help when you have a young quarterback? The answer looks like yes. Of the top 10 seasons by ANYA+ for a second-year quarterback in the last 20 years, eight of them had an above-average running back situation (and the two others had LeGarrette Blount as the leading back, with Carson Wentz in Philadelphia and Josh Freeman in Tampa Bay). Of the bottom 10 seasons, nine of them had below-average running back situations (only Akili Smith being awful with Corey Dillon at running back comes in at the bottom).
There is some correlation between having a successful quarterback thus allowing the back to have a better career, but I am comfortable saying that is not largely driving these results because a lot of the backs had excellent career numbers either before or after playing with the quarterback in question.
There are not a lot of cases to test this within season, but the recent Ezekiel Elliott suspension does provide one. Dak Prescott was a huge surprise as a rookie. In his second year, he regressed, but that regression was far greater in games that Elliott missed. Prescott still threw 17 touchdowns to 6 interceptions in the 10 games that Elliott played, which would translate to 27 TDs and 10 INTs over a full season. In the six games without Elliott, he threw five touchdowns and seven interceptions, numbers which resemble what plenty of busts put up.
There were six cases where a young quarterback in the first four years of his career played both with and without an elite running back for at least four games in a season, including the Prescott/Elliott example. Here are the others:
2001 Colts- Peyton Manning 6 games with and 10 games without Edgerrin James
2003 Rams – Marc Bulger 10 games with and 5 games without Marshall Faulk
2004 Ravens- Kyle Boller 12 games with and 4 games without Jamal Lewis
2011 Vikings- Christian Ponder 7 games with and 4 games without Adrian Peterson
2015 Bills- Tyrod Taylor 10 games with and 4 games without LeSean McCoy
The average ANYA dropoff when playing in games without the elite running back was 1.8 yards per attempt across those six cases.
Bell has averaged nearly 130 yards from scrimmage per game for his career. Last year, the Jets’ skill position players were among the bottom of what a NFL offense should be. This year, Sam Darnold gets to play with one of the best at the position. The only similar recent swing in running back quality for a second-year player was in 2016, when Tennessee replaced a committee backfield led by Antonio Andrews with a 28-year-old DeMarco Murray, backed up by rookie Derrick Henry. Marcus Mariota’s ANYA went from 6.10 to 7.14, just over a full yard improvement.
Last year, Jets’ running backs totaled 2,035 yards from scrimmage, and so if you just look at running back production numbers, you may not see much difference with the addition of Bell. Someone could look at those numbers and say that the Jets did not need a back if they could get that out of Isaiah Crowell, Elijah McGuire, Bilal Powell, and Trenton Cannon. The impact is likely to be on what Sam Darnold’s numbers look like. Bell should facilitate the young quarterback’s emergence. Do not be surprised if Darnold puts up above-average efficiency numbers in 2019.