FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Le'Veon Bell lined up behind quarterback Sam Darnold and took the handoff. As he prepared to run upfield, there was that trademark moment of hesitation, that stutter step to give himself just a split second to see where the hole would open up.
Once he found it – between the center and left guard – he darted upfield, slithering through the line and running a good 10 yards before the whistle blew.
Get used to it, Jets fans.
This was Bell’s first time with the Jets’ offense since signing a four-year, $52.5 million deal in March, and even though the players participated in the first day of minicamp practice in non-contact drills, you could see his unmistakable style. And you could easily imagine him doing the same thing on Sunday afternoons this fall, when the hitting is real and the final score matters.
Bell hasn’t played a down of football since Jan. 14, 2018, when the Steelers were upset by the Jaguars, 45-42, at Heinz Field in an AFC playoff game. He missed the entire 2018 season in a contract standoff that meant his eventual departure from Pittsburgh, and he has stayed away from the Jets’ offseason conditioning program to work out on his own in North Miami with longtime trainer Pete Bommarito.
Tuesday’s late-morning practice was thus the first time he’d been involved in a team practice of any kind. He loved every moment.
“It was amazing just running around, be able to trash talk, catch some balls, sweat in your helmet,” he said.
Bell’s arrival hasn’t been without controversy, and his decision to skip offseason workouts to train on his own hasn’t sat well with some people in the organization, including some players who would rather see him here grinding away and not on his own. First-year coach Adam Gase concedes it would have been preferable for Bell to be at the facility, particularly because everyone needs to get used to his offensive system.
And there have been reports of Gase not being happy with the decision by general manager Mike Maccagnan – who has since been fired – to invest heavily in a running back at a time when the position has been devalued around the league.
But Bell is used to criticism; plenty of it came his way in Pittsburgh, particularly the previous two years, when his contract-related holdouts didn’t play well among the team’s blue-collar fan base. He deflected concern about any issues with Gase, who has expressed nothing but support in his conversations with Bell. It feels like a non-issue at this point, especially now that Gase has such a versatile talent at his disposal.
Bell is a play-caller’s dream with his ability to slither through defenses as he did on Tuesday and his skill at catching passes out of the backfield and turning a short throw into a big gain. At 27, Bell is at his physical peak, and there is nothing not to like about what he can add to a Jets offense in need of playmakers.
“I picture this scheme being amazing for me,” Bell said.
But there is work to be done. Bell knows he must now master an offense that is unfamiliar, conceding that he was “literally trying to listen to every word of the play,” even on practice reps that did not involve him. But that will come with time, and there is certainly enough time in training camp for a veteran to gain a good enough working knowledge of the system.
“Football is football, so terminology here is different than where I was before,” he said. “I’m a smart player and I’m going to show people that.”
There is plenty to prove for a tailback who once dominated the sport, but who begins anew with a rebuilding team needing his best. Bell represents an instant upgrade for an offense now firmly in the control of Darnold, a second-year QB, and the running back will go a long way toward determining whether the Jets can be good enough for playoff contention.
Day 1 represented a fresh start for a player who believes the best days of his career are still ahead of him.