Quiet. Tender-hearted. Caring.
These are not words generally associated with an offensive tackle in the NFL. But they are among the words teammates and coaches use to describe Byron Bell, who is in his fourth season with the Carolina Panthers yet remains one of their least-known players.
People are paying more attention to Bell this year after he moved from right tackle to replace the retired Jordan Gross at left tackle, where he protects quarterback Cam Newton’s blind side.
They might know Bell’s ranking on Pro Football Focus, a popular NFL analytics site. Some fans might have followed Bell before he quit Twitter, tired of the negativity and constant criticism.
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Bell’s demeanor often can be taken as brooding, even among teammates, and he readily admits the 2007 fire in which his brother died affected him deeply. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Bell would let mistakes linger early in his career, and criticism from fans and media stung Bell.
But as he has gotten a little older, and with the help of his girlfriend, Bell has become better at deflecting the outside noise.
And as the Panthers (3-2-1) prepare to face Green Bay (4-2) on Sunday – a little more than three years after Bell made his first career start against the Packers in 2011 – the former undrafted free agent is coming off one of his best games of the season, at least according to Pro Football Focus.
“People are going to criticize; they’re going to say what they want. ... I had to (come) to the conclusion people are going to think what they want,” Bell said. “I can’t change people’s minds on Twitter. I can’t change Pro Football Focus, how they view it. People are going to view you how they want to view you.
“If I’d been that bad, I mean, we won three games this year (when) I’ve been at left tackle.”
Learning to cope
Rivera wonders how many fans really know Bell, a player forever shaped by the deaths of two family members – his father, who died of an undiagnosed heart condition when Bell was 5, and his younger brother, who was 8 when he perished in a fire that destroyed the family’s home in Greenville, Texas, while Bell was in college.
“I think for him having to deal with what happened with the loss of his brother has been tough,” Rivera said. “I don’t think people really quite know who the young man is, and how bright he is, how intelligent he is, how funny he is. Because he’s quiet. He’s easy-going and he stays to himself.”
Bell was away at school when the fire that killed his brother struck. It was 2007, and Bell’s New Mexico team was getting to ready to face Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl, while in her north Texas hometown, Sandra Bell was getting her Christmas shopping done for her four sons.
But the night before the bowl game, an electrical problem caused the fire that gutted the family’s one-story home. Everyone was able to get out of the house except Isaiah, whom Sandra Bell had adopted along with his twin brother Elijah.
Sandra waited until after New Mexico’s bowl game before telling Bell, whose initial reaction of anger gradually gave way to guilt.
“I felt down about that because I felt like I could have done something. But some things you can control, and some things I can’t control,” Bell said during a lengthy interview this week.
“When I get down about some things, Byron at 18 to the Byron now, I’ve learned a lot, and I grew a lot since then, too. I feel like I know how to cope with it.”
While his family had each other to lean on in Greenville, Bell said he felt alone when he returned to New Mexico, where he started 36 career games, including his last 24 at left tackle.
After the Panthers signed him, Bell was even farther from north Texas. He busied himself with learning the playbook, and ended up starting 12 games as a rookie at right tackle.
“In the past I felt like I was in this alone. I’m not in this alone,” he said. “I’ve got my family to fall back on, my teammates, coaches. I’m surrounded by people that want to help me. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, and now I’m helping others. I think that’s what’s called growing up.”
Bell has a close bond with right tackle Nate Chandler, whose father died from cancer when Chandler was in high school. Bell’s father, also named Byron, was 29 at the time of his death.
“I told Nate a couple days ago any time we step on that field, our fathers are sitting somewhere in heaven on Sunday watching their sons play, blocking elite defensive ends in this league,” Bell said. “I feel special to play with him.”
The night before the Panthers’ game at Cincinnati last weekend, Bell got together with one of his dad’s fraternity brothers from Texas A&M-Commerce, the Division II school where Bell’s father was a defensive end.
The man shared stories from college and sent a picture to Bell’s cell phone of his father smiling with a group of his fraternity brothers.
Newton, who entered the league the same year as Bell, said he likes arriving at Bank of America Stadium and seeing a smile on the face of Bell, whom Newton calls “Brisket” in reference to his Texas roots.
“He’s a person who is rather emotional for a lot of reasons. And that’s his biggest gift and curse, so to speak. He knows that,” Newton said. “When B Bell comes into work and he’s all smiles, then we know it’s going to be a good day. Even when he’s quiet – and he’s normally a quiet guy – but that’s for guys who don’t know him.
“He’s a very tender-hearted type of guy, loves playing this football game.”
Forget it, move on
The nature of the offensive tackle position in the NFL – much like cornerback – is that even the best ones are going to get beaten. Forgetting that play and moving on to the next is critical.
Corners call it amnesia.
Bell did not have amnesia his first couple of years in the league.
“In the past as he was developing he would get beat, and it would linger. Now he’s learned how to deal with it,” Rivera said. “I think going from right tackle and understanding the responsibility of being the left tackle and how important that is, I think that’s really helped.”
Dating Krystal Harrison, who is pursuing her doctorate degree in biology at the University of Michigan, also has helped. The two met at a Greek function in Charlotte 10 months ago when Bell, a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, offered to keep her hands warm on a cold night.
“If I have a bad game I can’t go home and yell at my girlfriend. That’s not fair to her,” he said. “If I have a bad game, I’m going to go home, let her know, OK, this is what happened. She encourages me to do better.”
Bell has had a few bad games since succeeding Gross, at least in the estimation of Pro Football Focus.
PFF ranks Bell as the league’s fourth-lowest rated offensive tackle, with only two positive grades in six games – the opener against Tampa Bay and last week’s tie at Cincinnati, when the entire line played well.
Bell’s worst game was the Week 4 loss at Baltimore, when Terrell Suggs blew past him on the first play of the game to hurry Newton in a preview of what was to come.
According to PFF, Bell has given up three sacks, four other hits on Newton and 13 pressures. Chandler has allowed three sacks, two quarterback hits and 10 hurries, the PFF data shows.
While acknowledging Bell has been beaten a few times, Rivera said he’s played “very well” overall. As for Bell, his confidence remains high.
“I’m doing pretty well for myself right now. I’ve been doing pretty well for myself since 2011. That’s what I’ve got to remind myself,” he said. “There’s going to be some bumps in the road. But you can look at the Hall of Fame and some of those top tackles in the league, some of them probably got beat once or twice.
“And I’m not saying I’m going there. I’m saying you’re going to have your ups and downs in life.”
Bell has experienced both, and the tragedies life has dealt him have helped him become an empathetic friend to Chandler, who called Bell a “caring” guy.
“Everyone has their days,” Chandler said. “And if, say, I’m not feeling it or something’s going wrong with me, he’ll be the first one to come over and see what’s wrong and if he can help me.”
Bell, 25, who is making $2.187 million this year, will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. He has 10 regular-season games left to prove he can be Newton’s blind-side protector for years to come.
Already, Bell has seen signs that at least a couple of fans are warming to him. He noticed two No. 77 jerseys in the stands for the Panthers’ Week 5 win against Chicago.
“And it didn’t say (Kris) Jenkins. It said Bell. So I was kind of happy about it. I know I’ve got one or two of them on my side. Slowly bring them all on board,” Bell said.
“But I’ve just got to keep the faith and keep doing my job. If I keep doing that, I give my unit confidence. I give my coaches confidence. ... And one day Pro Football Focus will like me.”