Mention the name Le’Veon Bell to John Harbaugh, and the respect factor is off the charts.
The anxiety factor, too.
“He’s just a great football player,” Harbaugh said this week as he began preparations for Thursday night’s game against the Jets at M & T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. “Making my notes on him right now.”
Those notes include reminders that some of Bell’s best performances in the NFL came against the Ravens during his time in Pittsburgh. He had a combined 192 rushing yards and four touchdowns in two Steelers victories over the AFC North rival Ravens in 2017. And 122 rushing yards in a Pittsburgh win the year before. And 129 yards and a touchdown the year before.
“He’s just a great football player,” Harbaugh said. “He’s someone you got to have an eye on and have someone attached to him really at all times. He can make guys miss and make plays on his own. He’s an edge runner and he can go north and south. He’s a complete football player. Obviously, he’s going to be a very important guy that we’re going to need to stop.”
Jets fans have yet to see that version of Bell. He has rushed for only 589 yards and three touchdowns this season and is on pace for his weakest statistical production over a full season since the Steelers drafted him in 2013 (860 yards in 13 games). Once considered a perennial Pro Bowl performer, Bell is a shell of his former self.
Blame a combination of factors for the diminished production: poor offensive line play from the Jets, inadequate play-calling by coach Adam Gase and Bell himself may have lost something off his fastball after missing the entire 2018 season in a contract dispute.
Whatever the reasons, Bell simply is not making good on the $52.5 million contract the Jets gave him in March. And if Gase is unable or unwilling— or both — to find the right way to utilize Bell, then it’s time to move on, get something in a trade for him in the offseason and figure out another plan for the running game.
It has been an uneasy marriage from the start. Bell was signed by a general manager, Mike Maccagnan, who made a desperate bid to transform the roster with a series of sweeping moves last offseason. Reports eventually surfaced that Gase wasn’t comfortable with the Bell acquisition because he preferred to use more of a running-back-by-committee approach than to give one player 25 touches or so a game. Maccagnan is gone, and recently hired Joe Douglas now runs the show.
That’s still no excuse for Gase failing to find the right way to game-plan for Bell, and he must shoulder a good deal of responsibility for the running back’s anemic numbers. Bell's 589 yards rank 25th in the NFL. That's 428 yards less than Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Think about that.
As a coach, you’ve got to find a way to properly deploy the players you have, even if it means going against your preferences. Gase didn’t do that, and it has cost him, especially during that 22-6 clunker in Cincinnati nearly two weeks ago when Bell was given just 10 carries against the NFL’s worst run defense.
Asked Tuesday if he feels he’s getting enough carries, Bell said, “To be honest with you, no. I feel like when I do, I’ll be back to what people are used to seeing. For me, I always feel like I can do more. When they call me to do more, I’ll be ready. Until then, I’m going to go out there, do my role, play football and do what I can.”
Translation: He’s frustrated with his limited workload.
And with Gase not likely to suddenly change his approach, it’s time for the Jets to go in another direction.
Bell didn’t help himself by deciding to go bowling the night before Sunday’s Dolphins game after he’d been ruled out because of the flu. But players have done far worse things with their off time, even if the optics looked bad because Bell had missed all week in practice.
No, his future with the Jets has nothing to do with a trip to the bowling alley on a Saturday. It has everything to do with Bell not being the right player for Gase. And now that the coach has been assured of being back next season despite a 1-7 start, there’s no use trying to force him to make it work with Bell.
Bell needs to be with a team where he can let his skill set flourish.
That team is not the Jets.