Keidel: Bell Well Worth The Pricey Risk For Jets

Jason Keidel
March 14, 2019 - 1:27 pm
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Since they are both explosive players, eccentric personalities and former Steelers, it's easy to toss Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell in the same PR bucket. 

Add the fact that they both left Pittsburgh on unfriendly terms and it's easy to see why they seem like identical cells from the same organism. 

But as Boomer Esiason often noted over the last few months of the NFL season, there is a tangible difference between Brown and Bell, two of the three "Killer B's" that made the Steelers' offense so potent for the last few years. 

Brown got his big-money deal and still whined his way out of town, skipping practices, blasting the squad through social media and missing the most important game of the 2018 season. He was banned by the club because he didn't practice that week, then sent his minion, Drew Rosenhaus, to tell Mike Tomlin that he was "willing" to play. (How magnanimous of him!)

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Bell, on the other hand, made a business decision- though a terrible one - to dismiss the $14.5 million franchise tender the team offered him last summer. So now Bell is the object of jokes that make him Brown's gridiron doppelganger. But the two players, like their situations and actions, are not identical. 

Brown will be 31 before the season starts, while Bell just turned 27. Brown was a malcontent no matter his money or fame or production. He fled to Oakland even though he'd gotten his generational contract. Bell is just now getting his, and if you can look objectively at his deal with the Jets, Gang Green got a great player at a fair wage, even if they offered more than any other club. 

Cynics will assert that Bell is dial-up in a wifi world, a running back ten years too late for the party. These are no longer the days of Curtis Martin or Adrian Peterson. Bell's species is entering its Ice Age. He also accepted a four-year $52 million deal, which makes his yearly salary (not including incentives) less than he would have made last year in Pittsburgh. 

Untrue. Bell is the perfect player for the nouveau world of pro football. His 129 total yards per game was the most in league history though 60 games. 

By any objective measure, Bell's bio is astonishing. In 1,229 rushes he gained 5,336 yards, to go with 2,660 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns. If he gets just four yards in his first game with Gang Green, he will reach 8,000 total yards in 63 games, the fastest pace in history, passing Hall-of-Fame RB Eric Dickerson who did it in 64 games. 

Bell made a silly decision, looked like a fool and lost the support of the Steelers' locker room. But you can't abandon your team if you're not under contract, even if that move was, well, unusual. No doubt Bell has earned a rep as a me-first diva who cares about getting paid more than winning games. But over half the NFL would fit under that cultural umbrella. You have about five years to cash-in on your talent, and then the NFL boots you out of the building.

Bell's agent, who likely advised him to sit out the 2018 season, also likely told him that a year off from 400 touches and double that many blows will make him the most coveted free agent ever. Wrong. Bell largely looked like a chubby mercenary in jetskis who would rather play for the Jets than the Steelers, who have been to eight Super Bowls since the Jets and Joe Namath made their lone appearance. 

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Bell made himself look especially misguided when he said he would not play for Gang Green unless they gave up mad green. First Bell warned he wouldn't play for less than $60 million, then said the Jets better go to the bank and get $100 million. Then he signs for $52 million ($61 million with certain incentives).

So it was a perfect storm of misinformation, manipulation and incompetence. Bell has some bad management, and he comes across as entitled. But don't doubt the man's football talent or athletic splendor. Before his financial decisions became FUBAR, Bell was the most potent and versatile runner in the game.. 

We all know the days of the conventional, downhill, bull-rushing back are over. But Bell is way more than a runner. He can gash a defense with bubble screens, circle routes and tosses into the flat. If you remember the Steelers' loss to the Jaguars in the 2017 playoffs, Bell can even fly downfield on deep routes. 

Curtis Martin - who knows something about playing for the Jets - said he wishes he had Bell's ability. No rusher in history has Bell's ability and patience to find a hole in the line, or his whiplash, zero-to-sixty speed, stationary one moment then dashing through a crack that wasn't there half a second ago. Also consider the infinite relief he provides for sophomore QB Sam Darnold, who hardly has Tom Brady's photographic memory of defenses and will delight in flipping the football to Bell as he's getting drilled by a blitzer. 

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The question du jour, of course, is Bell's motivation. Will he be driven by the twin-burdens of his bad decision to sit out last year and his new contract? If you think based on his actual on-field performance, he will be just fine as a Jet. Maybe Gang Green gave up too much green for Le'Veon Bell, but they had to end free agency on a high note after Anthony Barr burned them at the altar. 

If his mind and body are properly melded, Bell with be worth every dollar the Jets pay him. And with Todd Gurley melting in January's playoffs, there can be no doubt that Le'Veon Bell is the best running back in the NFL. The Jets may be taking a risk, but it's one well worth taking if a 4-12 team wants to someday go 12-4.   

Twitter: @JasonKeidel