I am a stat junkie. I love me some statistics. However, as a notorious stat monger, I know better than most just how statistics can be used to skew actual facts, and how stats may sometimes give the illusion of something else. As a stat guy, I’m a big fan of Profootballfocus.com, and have been for a very long time. Anyone who uses any kind of creative analytics has my attention, and PFF has been providing that service for years, now. I am also a big fan of Joique Bell, and I promise all this setup has a point. Despite being a fan, it’s always confused me when the mythos of certain players begins to grow, and that is the case with Bell this offseason. The Legend of Joique Bell has done nothing but gain momentum, despite recent offseason pickups. The question is, how warranted is all the hype? Does it have enough basis in fact to be considered probable?
A couple days ago, PFF posted their annual Secret Superstar series for the Lions. This series is essentially a way for them to highlight a player that maybe performed will but was unheralded on their team, most often because they were used in a limited fashion, often due to higher profile players on the team. In the case of the Lions, that player was Joique Bell. Oh jolly day! I expected some of what PFF provided, a look into how well Bell played when he was on the field, how as a situational rusher he provided a boost the Lions weren’t getting with Mikel Leshoure, how he provided a boost in the passing game when the Lions sorely needed it. What I got instead, to my shock, was some kind of pitch for Bell to get more playing time. Not over Leshoure, but over newly acquired Reggie Bush.
Now, I’m not going to argue their statistics. PFF does good work, and I don’t doubt their numbers are accurate. But were they presented fairly? Not in this case. The response was predictable, however.
Misconception 1: The Stat Sheet!
If you haven’t heard it, you’ve probably said it. A quick glance at a stat sheet and BAMP! Holy Crap! 5 yards per carry! Joique Bell is awesome! Holy Crap! Why is he not the starter!?! Who is our starter? BLORG! Really? This guy has like 3.7 YPC. That number is smaller than 5! Lookit that LNG! LNG is like 16 for Leshoure, but 67 for Bell, that’s crazy different better for Bell!!!
Aaaaaaaand…that’s where it usually ends. See, the fun thing about statistics is that they can tell you a whole lot, or tell you very little, even when using the same numbers. By looking at straight brass tax, Leshoure had more yards and more Touchdowns, huzzah for him he’s the best! Bell had a higher YPC and far more receptions than Leshoure, huzzah for him he’s the best! In all reality, it’s pointless to look at the front page of a stat sheet and say one is better than the other. It will all simply be what you put more weight in. If you’re an efficiency guy, Bell’s for you. If you like someone able to shoulder a heavy workload, you’re for Leshoure. It’s simple opinion. So who really is better?
Misconception 2: The Depth Chart
I blame Madden. I truly do. See, for SOME teams, there really is a clear cut #1, #2, #3 and they work them in that order. The Lions, like a majority of teams in the modern NFL, do not work their depth chart that way. Their depth chart is different based on down and distance, score, and a number of other factors. Sure, they have a starter, but that refers only to who receives the first snaps in the game. For the Lions, the first half of the season was completely different from the second half, which gave many the impression that Bell had outperformed Leshoure in such a way as to steal snaps from him later on. It wasn’t quite the truth when you really broke it down, so here’s a little bit of breakdown into how they were used and why they were BOTH good at what they did.
In the beginning of the season, the Lions had no idea what they had in Leshoure. They also didn’t know what they had in Joique Bell. That would explain why it was neither Leshoure or Bell that got the majority of carries to start the season, but Kevin Smith. While Leshoure was doing very little to endear himself to fans by serving a 2 game suspension, Bell’s first carry was a touchdown. Granted it would be his only notable play in those first two games, but it did a lot to improve his exposure to the fan base who only knew he was a local product and only needed that one reason to like him as a player. After his suspension was over, the Lions threw Leshoure to the wolves, and he produced his only 100 yard game on his first try, thanks in large part to what would be his season high 26 carries. Obviously based on the number of carries they received, Leshoure was ahead of Bell on the depth chart, but that wasn’t the case in every situation. So how did the depth chart really shake out? That explanation leads into…
Misconeption 3: Usage
To get into this fully, we need to understand exactly what makes one an every down back. Believe it or not, it’s more than just a RB that is used on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd downs. An “Every Down Back”, like Ray Rice or Matt Forte, needs to be able to rush from every down or distance, work in both red zones, catch out of the backfield as well as being able to catch as a check down outlet for the QB, and show good awareness and ability as a blocker in the backfield on passing downs. That’s a lot of skills for one player to have, which is a big reason the Every Down Back is turning into a relic of the past. The player doesn’t need to be great in all of those areas, but must at the very least be adequate and ought to be well above that in several of those. Most running backs nowadays fall into smaller categories, of which the most basic are classified by skillset: Speed Back (or scatback), Power Back (or short yardage specialist), and Utility Back (a jack of all trades, master of none). Obviously even many every down backs also fit into some of those categories, but mostly that is due to speed without taking other factors into consideration. So where does Bell fit in? Is he really an every down back?
Mikel Leshoure was used in a decreasing role as games went on, with about a third of his snaps coming in the 1st quarter and then decreasing from there. Bell on the other hand was used very differently, with about half of his snaps coming in each half, but twice as many rushing snaps coming in the 2nd and 4th quarters as the other two. Broken up as such (excluding overtime).
Quarter Leshoure Bell
1st 72 12
2nd 61 26
3rd 53 15
4th 28 22
As you can see, when the players were used was vastly different based on what quarters they were played in. Just looking at those numbers, it doesn’t give us the greatest idea as to when they were used as players, only as rushers. What gives us a clearer picture on that is when combined with the Lions passing numbers which we can get from looking at Stafford’s statistics. I’ll go more depth with those numbers when I look at receptions in a moment, but know for now that they follow a similar but far more drastic trend that essentially points to this fact: Joique Bell was used in passing situations far more often than likely rush situations.
The biggest disparity in their numbers comes at the end of games. The Lions lost a lot of games, which meant they were passing more by that point (Over 1/3 of Stafford’s pass attempts were in the 4th quarter). Looking at Bell and Leshoure, it was clear the Lions wanted to use Bell more in those situations as 4th quarter in close games and 2 minute drills are the ONLY time of the games where Bell received more touches than Leshoure. So did Bell outperform Leshoure in those situations? Only at first glance. Bell’s stat sheet is once again bolstered by one long run that accounted for 1/3 of his yardage in close 4th quarter games, but even when counting that run the two RBs statistics are similar in those situations.
The Lions rushing attack in general was poor, so it’s hard to grade fairly based on rushing statistics alone. What we CAN say is that between the two, neither could rush on 3rd downs with a combined SIX yards between them on third downs. The Lions overwhelmingly passed in those situations, with Bell slightly favored over Leshoure in those situations.
So how do we break it down into roles? We can simplify their usage by touches, or combined rushes and receptions. I’m also going to show the percentage of touches between the two that Joique Bell received, keeping in mind that Bell had over 100 fewer touches on the season. Going by Quarter and then down, it becomes a lot clearer with those numbers, so here they are:
Quarter Leshoure(249) Leshoure % Bell(134) Bell % Bell Usage %
1st 80 32% 15 11% 16%
2nd 66 27% 37 28% 36%
3rd 61 24% 22 16% 27%
4th 40 16% 53 40% 57%
OT 2 <1% 7 5% 78%
1st 154 62% 73 55% 32%
2nd 82 33% 47 35% 36%
3rd 13 5% 14 10% 52%
That’s a lot of numbers to take in, but here’s what it boils down to. Joique Bell was used primarily as in passing situations as evidenced by his very heavy usage in the 2nd and 4th quarter and his light use on 1st and 2nd downs or early in games. With almost half as many touches, Bell still managed more use on third downs and in the 4th quarter of games. So going back to the Depth Chart, while most people read it as 1. Leshoure 2. Bell 3….did we have a 3rd guy? Anyway, it didn’t really look that way the whole game. More likely, Leshoure was #1 in rushing situations while Bell was #1 in clear passing situations. This was increasingly evident as the season progressed and the Lions record got worse, with them passing more and facing more Prevent defense than ever before. It was these situations that a majority of Bell’s receptions and missed tackles came in.
Misconception 4: Effectiveness
Now on to the meat. We’ve already taken a look at when the two were used, now it’s important to understand how they were used and how effective they were in those roles. To lead into that requires a little explanation. As I said before, Bell was used on more passing downs than Leshoure. Does that mean he faced more passing defenses? One would assume yes, but let’s not forget that the Lions faced more deep Safeties and fewer 8 man fronts than any team in the league, and with the general ineffectiveness of their Tight Ends and a deeply wounded WR corps, the Lions RBs faced more than their fair share of favorable coverages. Now, that study, also by PFF, didn’t include Joique Bell since he didn’t qualify (needed >100 carries), but it’s safe to assume that since Bell faced more passing situations it’s likely his numbers would have been similar if not worse than Leshoure’s.
This, along with scheme, is why both Leshoure and Bell rushed almost exclusively as the lone setback with 3 receivers or more (remember that Tony Scheffler was used primarily as a receiver, not a TE, even when he lined up inline, and was often covered by a cornerback or safety) or out of the Shotgun formation. They both faced favorable coverages most of the season, and while Bell’s stats are slightly better from an efficiency standpoint, as this entire piece is devoted to showing, you can’t glance quickly at a stat sheet and call it a day. Fans of Bell, or detractors of Leshoure, are quick to point out his lack of explosive runs, something often attributed to his recovery and lack of run blocking ahead of him. While that is an indisputable fact, let’s not also ignore that Bell only had 3 rushes of 20+ yards and the two of them combined for a paltry 27 runs of 10+ yards. Regardless of running style or elusiveness, this is entirely due to a lack of speed from both players.
Which brings us to how Bell did in the role he was playing, and additionally, how well he did in other roles.
Rush Heavy (1st and 2nd down, 6-10 yards to go)
64 attempts for 5YPC and 1 TD
Short Yardage (Any down, 1-2 yards to go)
9 attempts for 2.5 YPC and 0 TDs
Red Zone (opponents 20-goal)
17 attempts for 2.9 YPC and 2 TDs
Backed up (Own red zone)
15 attempts for 8.1 YPC and 0 TDs
17 receptions for 10.5 AVG and 0 TDs
34 receptions for 8.9 AVG and 0 TDs
That’s a lot of info to digest so far, but what does it tell us about Bell as a player?
Joique Bell is a talented Running Back, but part of the reason he had success last season was because the Lions figured out how to use him effectively. It’s also a big reason he didn’t have success in his previous stops with Buffalo, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. Each of those teams (except Indy) already had a player that played each of the roles that Bell was good at, meaning they were looking to have him fill other duties, giving us a good idea why he didn’t latch on anywhere else. Teams likely looked at his size and thought he would make a good grinder, a role he was not particularly successful at. Few likely thought to get the big man in space and let him do work. It’s somewhat ironic, but while most viewed Jahvid Best’s injury as an eventual boon to Mikel Leshoure, it did more good for Joique Bell. Though Bell couldn’t fill that big play role that Best had, those plays gave him a chance to show the team what he could do in the open field against smaller defenders. It really was a perfect storm in Detroit, where Bell was able to face Nickel and Dime defenders while being thrown into a role most teams would have thought him ill prepared for.
It’s pretty easy to see that he’s not an every down back, though. While the Lions were poor in general in short yardage situations, it was pretty obvious Bell wasn’t the answer in that role. Though not a liability in the red zone, Bell was outclassed in nearly every way by Mikel Leshoure who scored at a rate double that of Bell inside the 20. Get Bell out in space, as often happens when teams are playing from their own half of the field, or on screen and flat plays, and he can make teams pay by breaking the first tackler who goes for him. Bottle him up, though, as will happen when teams expect run, and Bell isn’t nearly as effective.
In either case, Bell isn’t an effective enough runner to take red zone snaps away from Mikel Leshoure, nor is he fast enough to be enough of a threat in the passing game to pull snaps from Reggie Bush. Bell was perfect in the role he was given, as a change of pace back when Leshoure wore down and a sure handed outlet for Matthew Stafford. See, PFF was wrong to try and project Bell into the role of every down dual threat RB, just like many fans are wrong to try and project him as “Better than Leshoure” when they aren’t the same type of RB and neither performed the other’s duties well. I’ve never understood why people feel the need to put a player on a pillar and pretend they’re something they’re not, rather than enjoying what they are. Joique Bell is a very good player. He should be thought of as that. Not as magic.