Amid the trash-talking, handshakes and giggles, the forgotten man did something that made you shake your head and blurt out an obscenity in amazement.
If you blinked, you probably missed it. Heck, most of Le’Veon Bell’s new Jets teammates probably didn’t see it, either, given that Sam Darnold threw the ball to the opposite side of the field on this red-zone play.
But if you were a witness, if you saw the all-world running back plant his left foot in the ground, pivot suddenly and cut with such force on a pass route that made linebacker Avery Williamson crumble to the ground in a heap, you would have understood why this guy might be a gift from the football gods to Adam Gase.
One route, one nasty juke and one primal scream to nobody in particular after he beat Williamson clean on what would have been an easy touchdown.
Exactly 507 days since Bell last took the field with teammates, the Jets’ marquee free-agent addition provided a quick reminder that he still might be the best dual-threat running back in the universe.
“Maybe a lot of people forget a little bit just because of the fact that they haven’t seen it in a long time,” Bell said after his first practice with his new team at the start of three-day mandatory minicamp. “It’s normal. That’s what humans do. But I feel like once I go out here and I play, first game coming up, people will be reminded.”
Confidence has never been scarce for the three-time Pro Bowler, whose contract impasse with the Steelers prompted a season-long holdout. Although the Jets and Bell would have been better served if he had participated in at least part of the team’s voluntary off-season program, the bottom line is that he’s the single-best offensive weapon not named Peyton Manning that Gase has ever had.
“I picture this scheme being amazing for me,” said Bell, who only took four reps in 11-on-11 team drills and three more in 7-on-7 work on his first day. “It’s a lot of opportunities that I’ve never really had before.”
The quantity of work won’t increase. It’s hard to top Bell’s 406 touches in his final season in Pittsburgh in 2017, but expect Gang Green to utilize Bell’s complete repertoire. The Jets aim to diversify his portfolio with heavier volume in the passing game.
A healthy give-and-take between Gase and Bell will be the only way that this marriage thrives, but the possibilities are tantalizing. Gase admitted Tuesday that he’ll shape his scheme to accentuate Bell’s strengths and trust that his best offensive player will provide helpful feedback. That, of course, will take time.
Truth be told, the spring would have been invaluable for Bell to get in sync with his new coach, new quarterback and new offensive linemen. Gase conceded “when it’s the first year of an offense and we’re all trying to kind of get used to each other, you lose a little bit” by not participating in the offseason program, but insisted players “can adapt very quickly.”
Translation: Sure, I wasn’t thrilled with Bell training in Florida instead of participating in OTAs in beautiful northern New Jersey, but what can I do now? So, let’s move on.
“We can say here’s what the offense is, but I’m going to really lean on what he does well,” Gase said. “I can watch as much film as possible from Pittsburgh and say, ‘Okay, here’s what he’s done.’ That can be my starting point, (but) it’s going to be the communication of him saying, ‘Hey, I’ve never tried this before. Can I try this? Or can I do these routes?’ He’s going to be able to communicate with me like, ‘Hey, I want to try this’ or ‘I’ve never been comfortable doing this.’ And that can help me eliminate things very quickly.”
Gase and Bell’s relationship will be second in importance only to the head coach’s interactions with Darnold. The fact that Gase preferred not to sign Bell three months ago for myriad reasons is irrelevant now. Here’s what matters: They’re both here… and they can help each other.
“Business is business,” said Bell, who regularly communicated with Gase throughout the spring. “Even if the report was true, obviously he doesn’t feel like I’m not a great player. Maybe he just feels like, ‘Dang, maybe we could have gotten more great players.’ I don’t know. But what I’m saying is… our relationship is great.”
Fair enough, but what are everyone’s expectations? The Jets obviously want a great return on their four-year, $52.5 million investment that includes $27 million in guarantees over the next two years.
How about Bell? Does he want to carry the mail every week? Is there a minimum number of touches that he requires?
“I feel like I need enough touches to win the game,” Bell said. “I don’t care if I have seven touches. If I have seven touches and we win the game, I had enough today. If I have 38 touches and we win the game, that’s enough. If I have 38 touches and we lose, I ain’t get enough then. I just want enough to win the game. That’s all that really matters to me.”
It would be foolish, frankly, not to lean heavily on Bell this season. He will make everyone around him better, even on plays that he doesn’t touch the ball. As Darnold astutely noted, Bell’s varied skillset will provide an “unpredictable” element to an offense that finished 29th in total yards last season.
Bell looked and sounded like a kid let out for recess in his first day on the field in so long, talking smack to anyone and everyone within earshot.
“We got a loudmouth on defense (Jamal Adams),” left tackle Kelvin Beachum cracked. “And now we got a loudmouth on offense.”