Late last night one of my favorite sports movies happened to be playing on the television. Moneyball, the story and movie about how the 2002 Oakland Athletics managed to replace superstars such as Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon with a limited budget has cemented its place in the sports world. As I was watching, there was one scene in particular that stood out to me, a scene in which Brad Pitt, playing as Billy Beane, approaches his scouts with a new strategy on replacing Giambi.
“Guys, you’re still trying to replace Giambi, I told you we can’t do it. Now what we might be able to do is recreate him.”
Replace Giambi with Le’Veon Bell in this situation and you have an identical situation in which the Pittsburgh Steelers faced last season and will face again this season. By taking a Moneyball-like approach, the Steelers have not only been able to recreate Bell in the form of three other running backs but they have also managed to save quite a bit of money while doing it.
When Bell failed to show his face last season, the Steelers were faced with a big problem. There was a huge void in their offense as Bell contributed 1291 rushing yards and 655 receiving yards in 2017. The team initially tried to run the wheels off James Conner but an injury knocked him out for significant amount of time and as a result, both Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley shared the workload in his absence. Whether intentional or not, the Steelers almost exactly replicated Bell’s 2017 numbers with their backfield last season while also saving $14 million due to Bell’s absence.
Bell (2017) – 321 carries for 1291 yards, 4.0 yards per carry
Conner, Samuels, Ridley (2018) – 300 carries for 1309 yards, 4.4 yards per carry
Bell (2017) – 85 receptions for 655 yards, 80.2 Catch%
Conner, Samuels Ridley (2018) – 84 receptions for 714 yards, 80.7 Catch%
Almost identical numbers from one year to the other, and while many would argue that Bell’s contribution in the receiving game makes him such a valuable commodity, the Steelers were able to replicate his receiving performance as well. And for those who would counter argue back that the offensive line should be mainly credited for Bell’s performance, well, the numbers back up that statement as well.
Bell (Career) – 5.2 yards per touch
Conner (2018) – 5.4 yards per touch
Samuels (2018) – 5.5 yards per touch
Bell was projected to make $14.5 million last season should he have signed his second consecutive franchise tag. Instead he decided to sit out and the Steelers managed to get similar production from Conner, Samuels and Ridley, who had a combined cap hit of just over $1.9 million last season. The Steelers must have noticed as the chatter about a running back rotation has increased this offseason and they have good reason to investigate the benefits of a running back rotation. The original duo of Conner and Samuels will return but the Steelers have moved on from Ridley, who was plagued with ball security issues, and seemingly upgraded the position with rookie running back Benny Snell Jr.
Even with a $21 million dead cap hit from Antonio Brown’s trade, the additional $14.544 million recouped from Bell’s franchise tag last season has gone a long way to helping the team this offseason. The Steelers were able to extend the contract of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and sign free agents such as Mark Barron, Steven Nelson and Donte Moncrief.
Now, while there is no denying that Bell is a very talented, elite player, the best teams in the NFL typically rely on balance and value. Bell’s departure and refusal to accept any of the Steelers’ prior contract offers has allowed the team to create great value in the running back department while restoring some balance to the defensive side of the ball.
Bell’s cap hit with the New York Jets is just short of $9 million this season while jumping to $15.5 million next season. In comparison, the combined cap hit of Conner, Samuels and Snell will come in at just over $2.1 million this season.
In the movie Moneyball, Beane recreates Giambi, a superstar slugger with three players, Jeremy Giambi, David Justice and Scott Hatteberg. Now 17 years later, the Steelers will attempt to recreate Bell with three players as well. And while no one expected much from the 2002 Athletics, the team managed to win their division and make it to the ALDS. Now let’s hope the Steelers can have the same luck and more.