FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
It’s certainly not a great look when the centerpiece free-agent addition decides to skip out on most of his new team’s offseason training program. But Le’Veon Bell is right — as long as the Jets go as far as he thinks they can this season.
“Everybody will forget about that once January comes around,” Bell wrote on his Instagram account this past week in responding to a fan’s question about when he will report to practice.
If there really is January football for the Jets, chances are Bell will be a big part of getting them to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season. Any whiff of controversy over his decision to train on his own and not beside his teammates will have disappeared. After all, with the exception of a mandatory three-day minicamp early next month, the offseason program is voluntary.
NFL coaches and executives have become quite adept at using peer pressure to coax players to voluntarily show up for these sessions, to the point that the overwhelming majority of players do live and work at the practice facility for several months before reporting for training camp in late July.
Former Giants coach Tom Coughlin, now the Jaguars' executive vice president of football operations, is notorious for making players feel as if voluntary really means mandatory. Last month, he criticized Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Telvin Smith for not showing up to the workouts. At the request of the NFL Players Association, the NFL sent a warning letter to Coughlin over his comments.
Ramsey has decided to remain at home in Nashville to deal with family matters. Smith’s situation is more complicated. He announced that he has decided to step away from football.
Fortunately for Bell, there is no outward pressure being applied by the Jets. In fact, first-year coach Adam Gase on Friday expressed support for Bell’s decision to train mostly at home in Florida.
“We had a conversation about what was his schedule,” Gase said. “We’ll see how the OTAs go. I know with the mandatory stuff that he said that he was going to be here for that. I don’t expect him to not show up for that. When we get him in town and we can cover some things, I know that he’ll come in, he’ll get what he needs to get and then he goes and gets ready for the season.”
Gase reminded reporters that the offseason program isn’t mandatory.
“Everybody can get upset about it. There’s no point,” he said. “We know where he is. He’s working out. He’s always been ready. Every year that he’s played, he’s been ready to go. That’s just what it is. If somebody doesn’t like it, then talk to the NFLPA.”
Bell is hardly the only player to work out on his own during the offseason. Odell Beckham Jr. has worked out the last several offseasons in Los Angeles. Even Tom Brady has cut back on his offseason work at Gillette Stadium, although now that he's 41, that’s certainly understandable.
One more example: The greatest defensive player in NFL history rarely lifted anything other than a golf club in the offseason. Lawrence Taylor remained as far away from the weight room as anyone throughout his Hall of Fame career from 1981-93.
Bell does have to be mindful of this, though: He has not appeared in a game since Jan. 14, 2018, meaning he won’t have played for nearly 20 months when the Jets face the Bills in the Sept. 8 regular-season opener. He will need to be in football shape by then. Not having the kind of offseason regimen that most players grind through might have an impact, especially early in the season.
Bell has made no secret of his desire to have limited carries in the interest of extending his career, so Gase will have to figure out a way to maximize his newly acquired running back without overworking him. It’s a delicate balance made even more difficult by the fact that Gase won’t know Bell as well as his other players, simply because they won’t have been around each other.
Gase is smart for playing the long game by not criticizing Bell for missing workouts that coaches find highly useful for planning purposes. There is no question that coaches, Gase included, like having their players around in the offseason. They learn about one another, and in an era when practice time already is limited by collective-bargaining agreement rules, the offseason is an especially important time.
Gase will have to trust that Bell’s familiarity with what it takes to be at his peak when the season starts will lead to the kind of productivity we’ve come to expect from the 27-year-old running back. And there’s a lot riding on Bell here, because if the Jets play into January, Bell undoubtedly will be a big reason.