Tatum Bell’s third NFL season was a lot like the Broncos’ as a whole, with peaks scaled, but valleys traversed.
The good? Tatum Bell stretched the Broncos’ run of consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher to five, became the sixth different Bronco to rush for 1,000 yards in the Mike Shanahan era and helped the team average 134.5 yards per game on the ground, good for eighth in the league.
But Bell also suffered fumbles in the last three games and endured lingering turf-toe problems.
Bell managed to recover from the turf-toe problems to notch back-to-back 100-yard games in December that put him on track for 1,000 yards. But a second-quarter fumble at Arizona that was a returned for a touchdown seemed to mark a demarcation point; from that point forward, Mike Bell had the majority of the Broncos’ rushing yards and would score thrice in Weeks 15-17, while Tatum Bell’s season-ending hat-trick would be of the worst kind a tailback can endure.
Nevertheless, he got enough chances and opportunities to break the 1,000-yard milestone. He remained in the starting lineup, and by early in the San Francisco game on New Year’s Eve, he seemed to have reversed his struggles.
“After (the Cincinnati) game, (Head Coach Mike Shanahan) told me, ‘It’s all good; put it behind you; you’ve got to learn to get over that stuff,’” Tatum Bell said before the Broncos’ season finale. “(That’s) stuff (that) I already know. I know if I fumble I won’t be in there for a series or two.
“Especially if I fumble and Mike goes in there and does well — (then) I sure won’t be in there.”
His third fumble in as many games to close the year bore that out.
Before he fumbled early in the fourth quarter against San Francisco on Dec. 31, he’d touched the football 14 times, while Mike Bell had handled it on three occasions. From that point forward, Bell got the football 11 times via runs or receptions, while Tatum Bell only saw the football once.
Three years have taught Tatum Bell one lesson above all others for Broncos runners — that ball protection is priority No. 1. Ensuring that he doesn’t ever endure another spate of fumbles like he had last month could determine how much he’ll see the football in the future.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Before injuring a toe against Cleveland on Oct. 22, Bell ranked third in the league with 97.5 rushing yards per game … In that same span from Weeks 1 through 7, Bell averaged 4.7 yards per carry, which was third-best in the league among backs with at least 100 rushes to that point, only bettered by the New York Giants’ Tiki Barber (5.0 yards per carry) and Atlanta’s Warrick Dunn (4.8 yards per rush) … Denver went 1-3 in games in which he broke the 100-yard milestone, but 8-5 overall in the 13 games in which he started and played.
NEXT: Safety Sam Brandon.