FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — They were two of the most gifted players to ever wear the black-and-gold uniforms, players who had come to define their positions and make the Steelers’ offense one of the most prolific in NFL history.
But it eventually went sideways for Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, and both players forced their way out of town, leaving behind a trail of ill feelings among Steelers fans and some serious hits to their reputations.
But that’s where the similarities end for Bell and Brown. Their paths diverged at the end of the 2018 season, with Bell sitting out the entire year in a contract dispute and Brown quitting on his team after he skipped practices just days before the final game.
There are new starts for both players, but it is Bell who has embraced his surroundings with the Jets and Brown who has created a massive storm of controversy with the Raiders. Brown missed time after suffering frostbite during a cryotherapy session and has been in a snit with the NFL over its insistence that he change helmets to comply with the league’s new safety testing procedures.
How do you spell distraction in Oakland, where the Raiders acquired him in a trade and gave him a contract worth more than $50 million? A-N-T-O-N-I-O.
Brown has drawn the ire of coach Jon Gruden and new general manager Mike Mayock, who took the highly unusual step of publicly calling out Brown and telling him to either return to the team or get out. Seeing the possibility of losing all or part of a $30 million contract guarantee, Brown returned. But not before challenging the NFL yet again by filing a second grievance over his helmet.
And Bell? He hasn’t created a trace of distraction, not even when reports surfaced that coach Adam Gase wasn’t on board with the decision by erstwhile general manager Mike Maccagnan to sign the running back to a four-year, $52.5 million contract. Bell and Gase deftly sidestepped any appearance of ill will over his arrival, and Bell has ingratiated himself to the team and already commands a place as one of the Jets’ unquestioned veteran leaders.
He’s happy to be playing football again, he’s happy to be in New York, and he’s happy to have Gase as his coach and Sam Darnold as his quarterback.
“I’m so eager to play,” said Bell, who will be held out of any live preseason game action and will make his debut in the Jets’ regular-season opener Sept. 8 against the Bills at MetLife Stadium. “It’s going to be fun.”
It’s just the right attitude for a highly acclaimed player who was signed to inject new life into an offense that for too many years has lacked electricity. Brown was acquired by the Raiders for a similar purpose, but his time in Oakland so far has been a disaster.
Bell is aware of Brown’s issues in Oakland, and although the two haven’t spoken recently, Bell had empathy for his former teammate’s situation.
But only up to a point.
“As a skill player, it’s kind of hard to change your helmet, especially when you’ve been playing so long with it,” Bell told Newsday. “I understand where he’s coming from, but at the same time, it’s a rule, so you have to change the helmet.
“I changed my helmet my second year [with the Steelers], and I’ve been playing with a certain helmet my whole career,” he said. “It was hard to do, but I knew this was coming eventually, so I might as well change my helmet now.”
But enough is enough.
“Him fighting for it, him not showing up for practice,” Bell said, “I don’t really agree with that.”
Bell is delighted for his newfound opportunity with the Jets, a stark contrast to Brown’s nightmarish tenure so far in Oakland.
“I just wanted to have a new start, and I haven’t had any problems,” Bell said. “There have been a lot of dings going on with the Raiders, his feet, his helmet. I don’t know everything that’s going on, but I see what’s on TV, what the articles are saying.”
Bell can’t wait for what’s next.
“I want to show everybody I’m still the same player,” he said, “and help this team win games.”
Great player, great mindset.
For now, Jets win, Raiders lose.