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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Le'Veon Bell doing all he can to help, but let's save him for next season, too

Le'Veon Bell shown here getting swallowed up by

Le'Veon Bell shown here getting swallowed up by the Eagles' Malcolm Jenkins, left, and Zach Brown on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, is toiling just to get 2.9 yards per carry in the first four games. Photo Credit: AP/Michael Perez

Saquon Barkley’s clock is ticking, like that of all NFL running backs, which is one reason Giants fans were eager to have the team get on with its future by inserting Daniel Jones at quarterback sooner rather than later.

All good so far. Next season, Barkley still will be relatively affordable, only 23 and ready to see what he and Jones can do together, even if much of this autumn is spent on Jones learning and Barkley getting his ankle right.

But there is a sadder situation unfolding down the hall at MetLife Stadium, where an older, more expensive back currently is being wasted on the worst offense in the NFL.

Sure, it is difficult to feel sorry for Le’Veon Bell after he forced his way out of Pittsburgh by sitting out 2018 and then got a generous four-year, $52 million contract from the Jets.

But it also is difficult not to sympathize with his plight after games such as Sunday’s, in which he was asked to carry the load for an offense with a practice squad quarterback, porous line and lackluster receiving corps.

This was supposed to be an up-and-coming team with a young quarterback and offensive-minded coach. Instead it is an 0-4 team that ranks last in total yards per game and has scored two offensive touchdowns, one by Bell.

Things should and probably will get better when Sam Darnold returns from the aftereffects of mononucleosis, but even if that happens this week, it is too late to turn this into a playoff team.

So scratch one year off Bell’s prime. He still should have plenty of tread left in 2020, but will he by the time the Jets are ready to become a contender?

Meanwhile, he carries on. By all available evidence, he has been a good teammate, doing what he can to make something happen during losses, then saying the right things after them.

There was not much new for him to say after Sunday’s 31-6 loss to the Eagles, but he gamely insisted that things could turn around, even as he was honest about things that were going wrong.

One damning insight he offered was that players at times had come to the line unclear about where they were supposed to be, a notion coach Adam Gase did not dispute on a conference call with reporters Monday.

“That’s the worst possible thing that can happen when you’re running a play is there’s doubt or confusion,” Gase said.

Bell has rushed 71 times for 206 yards, a 2.9 average that ranked 41st in the NFL entering Monday night’s game. The rest of the Jets’ backs have rushed a total of 10 times. Bell also has 27 receptions, the most on the team.

He rushed for more than 1,200 yards as a Steeler in 2014, 2016 and 2017. At his current pace, he would have to rush more than 400 times this season to reach that figure. (Only five players in NFL history have done that, the last one being Larry Johnson in 2006 with an NFL record 416 carries.)

Gase on Monday said what coaches of bad teams always say: That most players are doing the right thing, but a “different guy” keeps making a key mistake to scuttle the best-laid plans.

Defensive lineman Leonard Williams said that in a team meeting Monday, several veterans spoke and said “they’ve been on teams that definitely were a lot worse than this.”

Bell tried to go down that road in the locker room Sunday, noting the Steelers started 0-4 in his rookie year in 2013. But that team rallied to finish 8-8, and Pittsburgh has not had a losing season since, thanks in part to Bell.

Can Bell help rescue this season? That seems highly unlikely. The best thing for the Jets is to keep him healthy enough that he has plenty left in his tank next September, when the Jets can start this thing over again.

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