Le'Veon Bell Doesn't Just Want to Dominate the NFL. He Wants to Revolutionize It

Tyler Dunne NFL Features WriterJanuary 10, 2017

ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 11: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after scoring his second touchdown of the game during NFL game action against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on December 11, 2016 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH — When the going's good, Le'Veon Bell is leading a running back revolution. The way he waits…and waits…and waits for a lane to develop behind the line of scrimmage? Poetry in motion. 

But here inside the Steelers locker room, teammate DeAngelo Williams bristles at that word: "revolution." Because when the going's bad, and granted it's been a while, the revolution becomes a question of why Bell doesn't just plant his foot in the turf and go already.

Moments after Bell's flawless playoff debut, Williams offers a jolt of honesty.

"It's a gift and a curse," he says. "Le'Veon Bell is Le'Veon Bell. Good, bad or indifferent."

I pause. Williams pauses.

It gets awkward with Bell only three feet away.

"Don't stop the interview because he's over here now!" Williams says. "Don't hide your questions! S--t, he's right here."

OK then, DeAngelo. Most of the world has seen Le'Veon Bell, the rapper, by now. "Juice" is so smooth, so methodical, so patient in that realm, too. Can Bell rap?

On this matter, Williams is even more opinionated. Yes, Bell can rap. But Williams absolutely wants him to turn on the jets. He wants, needs, is begging Bell to go ballistic on a beat. Spaz just once. Please.

His voice gets louder. Bell can't hear him.

Then, it hits Williams. Three months ago—three!—Bell promised he'd produce such a track specifically for him.

"I'm still waiting for that track you said you'd drop for me!"

"What track?"

"The track you said you were going to give me with the energy!"

Oh, that one? Finished, Bell says. Done. Polished. Ready for mass consumption.

"We're together every day bro," Williams says. "We talk about a lot of s--t and you've never said, 'Hey! I dropped that track for you!'" 

NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 26:  DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Le'Veon Bell #26 talk  before a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on August 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

So Bell explains…sort of. He tells Williams that he put together that track the night Williams asked him to. But, no, Williams doesn't buy it.

"He's lying! Because every time he drops a track, it always goes live on Instagram first."

Bell puts down his phone and shouts back.

"OK, OK! Look! I did it on Instagram," Bell yells. "Go to Instagram right now! The song's on there! I didn't drop it, but I put up a little video. A little snippet. You know what I'm saying? That's going on my album."

Cut him some slack, DeAngelo. The time will come. He's a little busy right now.

This day, Bell penned a 29-carry, 167-yard, two-touchdown masterpiece in a 30-12 win that will send the Steelers into the divisional round against Kansas City. Plus, he has a few chess matches to win tonight. Once he leaves the stadium, Bell will take on his former college teammate, Larry Caper, in another epic game of SocialChess on his phone. A seven-game win streak has pulled Bell to 25-23 in their ongoing series.

"Oh yeah," Bell assures, "we're going to play."

Williams isn't through with Bell yet. Before Bell heads to his press conference, he tells him the track needs to be called "Kamikaze." Bell smiles and assures he already has a name for it: "They Know What We About."

Williams loves it and, finally, the two reach a truce.

"OK, I can dig that! I wasn't really sure at first. I'm a fan. Just put me in the credits. Just put 'D.Will'! I don't even need my whole name. You don't even need to put a space. You can put D-period-Will. That's six characters, man. That's all I need. You ever see Monsters Inc., when they put the bar code over that monster's head? That's me!"

Bell probably already knew how this would play out. He's always thinking two, three, four moves ahead.

That's how he runs. How he raps. How he plays chess. It may look or sound like patience, but that's because he's making plans.

And against Miami, Bell did resemble a 6'1", 225-pound revolutionary. Our generation has never seen such prescient patience before, such a sixth sense. Against Miami, Bell repeatedly paused behind his blockers. He bobbed, he weaved, he waited for the perfect moment to plant and accelerate.

He saw the game a split-second before the 21 other players on the field.

As a result, he hypnotized Miami. Embarrassed Miami.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 08:  Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball into the end zone for a touchdown during the third quarter against the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card game at Heinz Field on January 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pen
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Quieted Miami.

Out the door, inside the visitor's locker room, fiddling away at a duffel bag is Cameron Wake. Ask the Dolphins veteran if he has a moment to chat and his initial answer is inaudible. Ask again and he musters a "No, I don't."

That's because the field was once again Bell's chessboard, his microphone.

Maybe Williams doesn't quite see a revolution—maybe he wants "Juice" to rap with more energy—but plenty do.

Bell will operate at his own speed.

And he is determined to change the game forever.


The movie escapes him. Bell only remembers being in second grade, with his friend, watching two old guys play chess on the screen.

He was mesmerized.

Nobody his age knew what checkers was, let alone chess. But he needed to know more. The moment the movie ended, Bell and his pal sprinted to a computer—"one of those old computers!" he recalls—and learned what those 32 pieces on the board were doing. The bishop only moves diagonally. The king only moves one square. The queen does it all.

Bell was hooked, instantly, and has played chess ever since.

As a kid, he wore out wooden chessboards. Now, he plays SocialChess on his phone until the battery turns red.

If it often seems like Bell sees plays transpire before everyone else, it's because, well, he does. He views football through this chess lens. That's how his brain works.

"Even though I don't realize it," Bell says, "I'm thinking way ahead of where I'm actually at now."

Let him explain.

"If I move a piece—in my head, I'm thinking, 'I want him to take this piece so I can end up taking his piece so I'm in a better position for my next move later,'" Bell says. "In football, when I break the line of scrimmage, I see a player in front of me, a defender, and already in my head I'm thinking, 'I'm going to make him miss.' So I'm already looking at the next defender like, 'OK, how can I set this guy up to get him out of position, too?' ...

"So the first guy, I make my move, I make him miss. Now, I'm on my second guy. Before he closes on me, I already have my next move prepared. I think that's what separates me. I don't think a lot of people can process that in that split second you're running the ball."

He points to two runs specifically. On his 44-yarder against Kansas City, Bell never looked at the safety on purpose. He saw All-Pro Eric Berry but didn't want to tip his next move. So Bell followed his linemen in a nonchalant trot.

"I look away," he says. "He's thinking I'm about to go follow them."

One cut. Peace.

Or take 12 of his 298 yards inside a Buffalo snow globe last month. Bell ran a counter play to the left, patiently letting Jesse James set up a block, again refusing to look at the safety.

ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 11:  Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball as Corey Graham #20 and James Ihedigbo #27 of the Buffalo Bills pursue during the game on December 11, 2016 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. Pittsburg
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

One cut and Corey White was rendered a mall mannequin.

Of course those old guys in the movie—like most all who play chess—take their sweet time with each move. They don't have 300-pounders trying to drill them in the rib cage before shifting a bishop. So Bell plays chess with a twist. His games with Caper are set at a 15-minute time limit. In these speed games, each move must typically be made in 22 seconds or less.

Bell and Caper, the former Michigan State running backs, have been ripping off three games at a time about three nights per week of late. Once Caper is off work and Bell is free, they'll text, open up SocialChess and match wits.

Caper? He attacks on the board. He's aggressive.

Bell? He isn't aggressive, nor conservative. He picks and chooses when to strike, careful to never telegraph his intentions. Instead, Bell places invisible land mines all over the board—"traps" and "holes," Caper says—and tries to steer you toward them one move at a time.

So Caper sees the correlation. He knows chess helps make Bell the back he is.

"He'll wait for the defensive linemen to make a mistake or over-commit, and then he'll capitalize on his misplacement," Caper says. "It's the same thing in chess. If you move your pawn forward too much or bring your bishop out too quick or your queen up too quick, he's going to capitalize. Same mind-set, different board."

Because while Bell is patient, he's also decisive.

Time is always ticking in speed chess.

"And understanding where you're moving and why you're moving there. It's a little bit of everything. He's not into the granular details of, OK, if he makes a move there, I need to make move here. He's not out there responding to every single move you make. Once he's in a situation, he knows how to get out of it or corner you into a position where you want to just let your king down."

After each win through this current win streak, he's been texting Caper "…6-0," and "…7-0," to, as Caper says, "pour gasoline on the fire."

And as Caper speaks, Bell scores the weirdest 1-yard touchdown you'll ever see. He doesn't ram into the line. Doesn't go airborne. No, Bell literally slams the brakes behind the line, waits, then zips ahead.

On his TV at home, when Caper then sees Bell take a seat on the bench to study the Xs and Os on a tablet, he instantly thinks back to their film sessions at Michigan State. Each Friday night, Bell came to his room to dissect blocking schemes. Was that player's right hand in the dirt or his left? Is the end in a Wide 9? Is the nose head up over center?

All information is stored in Bell's brain, and he never forgets. One minuscule detail can turn a 2-yard gain into a 20-yarder.

Maybe Bell looks like a running back who loves waiting for five hours at the DMV. Just trust him, folks. There's a method to his madness.

"It takes a different approach," Caper says, "to want to be patient, to want to slow down."

He'll keep playing chess through the playoffs, too. A lot of chess. Many nights, Bell plays three other chess games while simultaneously facing Caper.

Bell believes his game is 60 percent mental.

"That's what really separates me," Bell says. "A lot of guys are just as fast, just as strong or just as big as me. But they're not going to be able to think the way I do on the field."


The album dropped on Feb. 6, 2003 and Le'Veon Bell needed to have it. He had never bought a CD with his own money before, but "In Da Club" was unlike anything he had ever heard.

He was in fifth grade. He was not exactly the target audience.

But the beat, the lyrics, that steady punch 50 Cent delivered made Bell feel a certain way. So he bought Get Rich or Die Tryin' and listened to every song repeatedly. "In Da Club" and "Many Men" were his two favorites. And it was at this precise moment that the avid chess player decided he'd rap one day, too.

"Ever since then," Bell says, "I was like, 'I want to make music like 50 Cent.' Music makes you feel a certain type of way. It puts you in a certain mood. And I felt like I could do that to people."

Not only did Bell become the first player in NFL history to average 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards per game in a season this year. He released a seven-track EP, Until the Post Interview, after previously releasing tracks such as "Focus" and "Rappin' Athlete." Bell posts song after song on social media, where he's one of the NFL's most interactive stars.

 

The feedback's been positive, too. He's no gimmick.

Thinking two, three rhymes ahead, he'll then cut on a dime into a blistering "I'm at the top, and if not, I'm the closest. I'm a need 15 a year and they know this." Which, of course, was a reference to his pending free agency. The Steelers are expected to franchise tag Bell this spring.

Don't be surprised if Bell works the tag into a rap song when that happens.

Just like he works 50 Cent-like rhythms into his game on the field.

"If I see a guard pulling and I know he has to block a linebacker, I'm going to try to time it up as the beat's dropping," Bell says. "So right when the guard's hitting the linebacker, the beat's dropping and I have to take the beat right now."

All this could frustrate an offensive line. Backs turned, legs churning, they don't see Bell waiting for a beat to drop. Guard Ramon Foster believes they've already all "weathered the storm" with Bell. All season, this emcee has been on point.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 13: Running back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with football as offensive lineman Ramon Foster #73 blocks during a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Heinz Field on November 13, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

"I'd love to block for him his entire career or however long I'm here," Foster says. "Give him the contract. We'll see what happens. … It's his style. I've seen other guys try to do it and can't do it. Our job is to stay on our blocks and he'll make us right.

"He is by far the best back in the league, no matter what other guys may say."

So how do you to describe him? He may be the closest the game's seen to Barry Sanders, a human joystick who set traps all over the field. But Sanders was more cut-on-a-dime-quick than patient. More Busta Rhymes than Juice.

Steelers back Karlos Williams played with a Sanders Lite in Buffalo, LeSean McCoy, and cannot think of anyone in the NFL who comes close to resembling his new teammate.

"What other back in the league is doing what Le'Veon is doing?" Williams says. "He is anything you need him to be. Le'Veon is something that you never see. You don't see guys who are 6'1", 6'2", 220 pounds who can run routes like a receiver. Like an Odell Beckham. Like a Jarvis Landry. If I'm starting a franchise, I'm picking Le'Veon."

Sanders is the wrong comparison. He never caught 50 passes in a season.

Marshall Faulk was a dual-threat, but he wasn't as big. Emmitt Smith could handle 30-plus touches, but his game was more about getting from Point A to Point B. LaDainian Tomlinson had Bell-like vision, but he didn't line up as a wideout nearly as much.

Roger Craig, the first back to finish with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season, watched Sunday's game. He sees Bell as a mash-up of himself as a receiver, Marcus Allen in the tight quarters ("that same stop and start") and Earl Campbell at the point of contact ("He breaks a lot of tackles, man").

In this millennium, no doubt, Craig believes Bell is redefining the position.

"He's a mixture of everybody," Craig says. "Even some Walter Payton. Everybody."

There is no comparison, and that's the way Bell likes it.

He'd prefer to evolve as this "perfect mix" of running back and receiver. Sitting on a stool at his locker, his eyes light up. Last week, in a conversation with his mother, Bell learned that all of his little cousins' Pop Warner coaches were teaching them to run like him. They weren't screaming, "Hit the hole! Hit the hole!" like thousands of coaches have for decades.

No, these coaches were teaching 8- and 9-year-olds to be patient, to wait for that beat to drop.

Bell isn't shy about it. He expects the next generation of running backs to follow his lead.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 13: Running back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on from the sideline during a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Heinz Field on November 13, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Cowboys defeated the Steelers 3
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

"I think I'm changing the game," Bell says. "In that sense, I'm what Steph Curry is to basketball. Don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily think Steph Curry is the best basketball player, but he changed the game so he's going to always go down as being remembered. Now, everyone wants to shoot the three and shoot it from deep."


There is one man who'd know for sure if Le'Veon Bell is correct, if he truly is leading a NFL revolution.

Long before he was the heart and soul of the Golden State Warriors—flexing, snarling, serving as the triggerman of an offense basketball has never seen before—Draymond Green was playing pick-up hoops with Bell at the Breslin Student Events Center on the Michigan State campus. They'd play all offseason. One day, around 1 p.m., Green remembers Bell slicing down the lane to throw down a vicious jam.

He'd pick his spots on the hardwood, too. He'd probe, probe, then attack.

But more than this, Green remembers Bell treating a game of Madden or NCAA Football like a real game. Nobody ever beat him.

"He'd destroy people," Green says. "He would know, 'You're playing this defense mostly, so I'm calling this play.' All of a sudden, it's a 20-yard catch. All of a sudden, it's a 25-yard run. Then, he'll dissect your offense. He'll throw an entirely different defensive package at you and shut everything down. It was pretty special."

Now, his friend toys with real NFL defenders the same way.

Green has lived a basketball revolution firsthand. The Warriors never lift their foot off the gas with Curry hoisting a historic number of threes. He owns three of the four most prolific three-point seasons in NBA history (402, 286 and 272), with teammate Klay Thompson (276) having the other. Because of Curry, coaches at all levels emphasize the three ball. At least they should. He single-handedly opened eyes to analytics that've been closed shut for years.

From afar, Green absolutely sees Bell doing the same exact thing in his sport.

"That patience he has as a runner has never been seen before," Green says. "You had Barry Sanders, who shook you out of your socks. Quick as grease. You had 'the Bus' and his power running. You have super-fast runners. But a runner with the patience he has? I mean, I don't know if we've ever seen that. He's a special runner who's definitely transcending the game and it's fun to watch.

"No one else in the NFL runs like that, but I guarantee you, there will be some runners coming out—and there's probably some in the NFL now—that'll try to take on that technique."

A dash of basketball has helped. Bell was a standout at Groveport (Ohio) Madison High School and kept playing whenever he could in college.

At the top of routes (as a receiver) and in the hole one on one against a tackler (as a running back), he pretends he's crossing-over a defender in basketball. One Iverson-like juke in an AFC North-clincher over Baltimore left Shareece Wright crumpled in a heap of What the hell just happened?

"That's exactly how I would've done it if I was on a basketball court," Bell says. "I would've made him think I was going to the left and crossed over to the right hard and drove to the rim."

Back in college, Green used to badger his friend to lose 20-30 pounds. Drop that weight, and he'd truly be special. At the time, Bell would tell him that he's fine at 240-245.

Al Goldis/Associated Press

 

Now he's thinner, and it's all coming together. Last summer, Bell told Green he was down to 2 percent body fat.

"His mindset changed," Green says. "He trains harder than anyone in the league and it shows in his play. You see the best player in the NFL.

"To see him grow into the person he's growing into—obviously he's made his mistakes, which we all do, but the way he's bounced back shows you a lot. Not everybody can bounce back from things the way he does. I'm looking forward to continuing to watch him grow and take the league by storm."

This isn't a revolution until Bell, like Curry, wins a championship.


Gusts of wind stung all exposed skin on the Steelers sideline. With each breath, a cloud emanated from every player's mouth. With each stroke of a pen, ink went dry.

Wind chills dipped below zero degrees at Heinz Field on Sunday.

The Steelers, unlike the Dolphins, were built for this.

As players and coaches exited through a tunnel below the bowl, Mike Tomlin was ecstatic. The head coach stared into the crowd, curled his upper lip and shot a pretend pistol. Antonio Brown was smiling, laughing, bouncing off in a buoyant skip. James Harrison was stern, scowling and merely pointed one finger to the stands.

Then, finally, Le'Veon Bell was the last player to leave, in an oversized coat that looked more like Superman's cape.

This kind of weather would make just about every other running back in America HURRY! through the hole, right through the tunnel. Not him. He dominated the game his way. No Steelers running back—not Franco Harris, not Jerome Bettis—ever rushed for as many yards in a playoff game.

Next up? A street fight. Since getting blown out by Pittsburgh in Week 4, the Chiefs have bludgeoned opponents. They're the team your grandfather loves. A throwback to another era, to when Harris was a dancing bear in the 70s and the Bus steamrolled tacklers in the late 90s.

If the Steelers win that one, they'll likely head to Foxborough, where the wind chill could be even worse.

Le'Veon Bell is ready. He's ready for the cold, the snow, the inevitable 30-40 touches.

Because Le'Veon Bell is also angry.

He hears all MVP talk circulating around quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. He sees that Ezekiel Elliott was a first-team All Pro and David Johnson a second-teamer. Deep down, he's still that ornery two-star recruit. Bell believes other players are constantly propped up as the faces of the NFL.

"Why don't I get to be the face?" Bell says. "Why don't I get as much love as this guy?"

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 20:  Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers takes a photo with fans prior to the game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Maybe he's not the MVP. That's fine. He has bigger plans.

"I play this game to win Super Bowls and be a Hall of Famer," Bell says. "I want to be remembered as, if not the best, then one of the best players ever. Not just running backs—players. I don't want to be a guy who's just known as a running back. I want to be a guy who's known for all situations.

"I've done some things in this league a lot of people haven't done."

So all followers on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook should stay tuned for the full version of "They Know What We About." It's coming. Soon.

And Caper should keep trying to find a way inside Bell's mind to end that seven-game win streak.

It won't be easy. Bell always has a move, a juke, a cut ready. He's always waiting with something nobody's ever seen.

 

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.