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Le’Veon Bell Is The Most Dominant Player In The NFL

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell had himself a day on Sunday. He rushed for 236 yards against the Buffalo Bills, breaking the Pittsburgh single-game rushing record that was set by Willie Parker in 2006. Bell also caught four passes for 62 yards, giving him a total of 298 yards from scrimmage. That’s tied for the 10th-most in a regular-season game since at least 19501 — and it’s more than the entire Bills offense gained against the Steelers defense. On a day when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggled (37.8 passer rating), Bell carried the team to victory.

In an NFL season light on superlatives — no quarterback or wide receiver is having a historically great season — the top performers have been running backs. Dallas rookie Ezekiel Elliott leads the NFL in rushing yards, with 1,392, and is a big reason why the Cowboys are beating every team they play that’s not the Giants. Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, my vote for midseason Offensive Player of the Year, has arguably been better than Elliott. Johnson has gained at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game the Cardinals have played this season; he’s only the second player in NFL history to cross the 100-yard mark in each of his team’s first 13 games of a season.

And yet, neither Elliott nor Johnson has been the most dominant player in the NFL this season, at least not on a per-game basis. That honor belongs to Bell, who now has 1,616 yards despite missing the first three games of the season. He’s averaging 161.6 yards from scrimmage per game this season — 20.8 more than Johnson, 29.8 more than Elliott and at least 50 yards more than everyone else in the league. There is simply no more dynamic or versatile star in the league:

stuart-bell_mvp-1

Bell’s average of 161.6 yards from scrimmage isn’t remarkable for 2016 alone. If it were to stand through the end of the regular season, Bell’s 2016 performance would rank as the second-highest single-season average since 1932.2

YARDS
RK PLAYER SEASON TEAM RUSH REC YFS G YFS/G
1 Priest Holmes 2002 KC 1,615 672 2,287 14 163.4
2 Le’Veon Bell 2016 PIT 1,053 563 1,616 10 161.6
3 O.J. Simpson 1975 BUF 1,817 426 2,243 14 160.2
4 Chris Johnson 2009 TEN 2,006 503 2,509 16 156.8
5 Marshall Faulk 2000 STL 1,359 830 2,189 14 156.4
6 Marshall Faulk 2001 STL 1,382 765 2,147 14 153.4
7 Jim Brown 1963 CLE 1,863 268 2,131 14 152.2
8 Marshall Faulk 1999 STL 1,381 1,048 2,429 16 151.8
9 Walter Payton 1977 CHI 1,852 269 2,121 14 151.5
10 Tiki Barber 2005 NYG 1,860 530 2,390 16 149.4
11 LaDainian Tomlinson 2003 SD 1,645 725 2,370 16 148.1
12 O.J. Simpson 1973 BUF 2,003 70 2,073 14 148.1
13 Barry Sanders 1997 DET 2,053 305 2,358 16 147.4
14 Clinton Portis 2003 DEN 1,591 314 1,905 13 146.5
15 Steven Jackson 2006 STL 1,528 806 2,334 16 145.9
Single-season leaders in yards from scrimmage (YFS) per game

Minimum eight games played, 1932-2016 seasons

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

With no clear favorite for MVP this season, Bell is making a strong late-season push. And you can see it beyond the traditional stats. Among running backs, Bell ranks as the third-best rusher and the fourth-best receiver (subscription required), according to Pro Football Focus; he’s the only player in the top five in both of those metrics. He also is one of just four starting running backs averaging over 2 yards per carry after contact, bringing a power element to his game as well.

This may be Bell’s best season, but he has been a yards from scrimmage monster for much of his career. In 45 career games, Bell has 3,830 rushing yards (85.1 per game) and 1,952 receiving yards (43.4 per game). That translates to 128.5 yards from scrimmage per game for his career, which would be the highest career average since 1932.

And while it’s not apples-to-apples to compare Bell’s production right now to every other player’s career production — Bell hasn’t seen his average dragged down by playing games during the decline phase of his career — we can see Bell’s dominance just as clearly by comparing him to players when they were at the same stage. Among the 100 players with the most yards from scrimmage through four seasons, Bell has the highest number of yards from scrimmage per game.3

RK PLAYER SEASONS G YARDS FROM SCRIMMAGE YFS/G
1 Le’Veon Bell 2013-16 45 5,782 128.5
2 Edgerrin James 1999-02 52 6,640 127.7
3 Eric Dickerson 1983-86 62 7,842 126.5
4 LaDainian Tomlinson 2001-04 63 7,921 125.7
5 Terrell Davis 1995-98 61 7,594 124.5
6 Marcus Allen 1982-85 57 6,942 121.8
7 Billy Sims 1980-83 52 6,252 120.2
8 Ricky Williams 1999-02 54 6,437 119.2
9 Arian Foster 2009-12 51 6,052 118.7
10 Clinton Portis 2002-05 60 7,059 117.7
11 Jim Brown 1957-60 48 5,642 117.5
12 Adrian Peterson 2007-10 61 6,952 114.0
13 Jamal Lewis 2000-04 60 6,822 113.7
14 Chuck Foreman 1973-76 53 6,009 113.4
15 Walter Payton 1975-78 57 6,427 112.8
Leaders in yards from scrimmage per game, first four seasons

Among the top 100 players in yards from scrimmage through four seasons, 1932 to 2016.
Jamal Lewis was injured for the whole 2001 season, so his first four seasons include 2000 and 2002-04.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Right now, Bell is second in the league in rushing yards per game and sixth in yards per rush. And among all players, he is fourth in receptions per game, with 6.7. If Bell can continue his dominance during the final three games of the regular season, he has a good chance of taking home the MVP — and dragging the Steelers into the playoffs while he’s at it.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. That’s the first year for which Pro-Football-Reference.com has game-level statistics for each player.

  2. That’s when the NFL began tracking individual yards.

  3. Although total yards and passing stats are at historic highs, rushing yards are near historic lows. Most statistics are best viewed in light of era adjustments, but that’s much trickier to do when it comes to yards from scrimmage; currently, teams are averaging just 107.6 rushing yards per game, the third-lowest average since the league starting tracking this metric back in 1932. As a result, it’s not clear what advantage, if any, modern running backs have when it comes to racking up big yards from scrimmage totals. For example, it was a wide receiver, Julio Jones, who led the NFL in yards from scrimmage last year, but it was with the lowest total by any player since 1996.

Chase Stuart writes about football statistics and history at FootballPerspective.com

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