FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Le'Veon Bell wants to be a leader for the Jets -- much more of a leader than he ever was in Pittsburgh. He knows he has no choice. He knew everyone was watching him closely when he took the field for the first time with the Jets on Tuesday. And his response to the scrutiny was basically: Bring it on.
But what happens next, when training camp begins in late July, will be the true test of just how much of a leader the 27-year-old Bell can be. Because he blew his first shot by deciding to skip the Jets' offseason training program so he could train by himself in Florida. Maybe that's not a decision that will make-or-break his season. Maybe it was his right, since the workouts were "voluntary." But it was still a mistake, especially for a player who hadn't been on a field since the end of the 2017 season.
Bell wants to be a leader? Leaders belong with their team.
Not surprisingly, Bell had no regrets about his decision when he finally arrived on One Jets Drive, because "I wanted to do the things I normally do in my career." He believes so strongly that he's better served by training by himself that he'll be on a plane as soon as this three-day minicamp is over, and will not join his teammates for the final days of their offseason program next week.
"I wasn't here at OTAs because I want to be better," Bell said. "I want to be the best me."
That's fine, and he's certainly not the only player who feels like he's best served by spending the offseason with a personal trainer. Almost always, when a player skips a team's offseason program, it turns into a mild spring controversy that hardly matters when training camp gets going in July. And in the end, that probably will be the case with Bell, too.
But if he really does want to be a leader of this team, this was still a funny way of showing it. The Jets made him the centerpiece of their offseason spending spree and handed him a four-year, $52.5 million contract even though he hadn't played a football game in more than a year. They had a new coach, installing a new offense, with a second-year quarterback still eager to learn from the veterans.
It sure would've been a nice gesture if he could've volunteered to spend a few days working with them instead of alone.
And don't think for a second that Adam Gase was completely OK with Bell's decision. The new Jets coach has avoided criticizing his star running back, and made sure to praise him for the way he stayed in constant communication with him and the coaching staff. But Gase couldn't hide the fact that he and Bell could've gotten a lot more done together if he had been up here working on the Jets' field.
"Anytime we can work on the field, it's great for the coaches," Gase said. "I think it's good for the other guys as well, because you get used to the guy's running style. We all know he has a unique running style, that patience that he has. And for me to get used to what he likes - that communication of him saying 'Not really a big fan of this, but I love doing this,' and really just that constant communication in person, that helps a play-caller. I think it helps the line. It helps the quarterback.
"So there's a lot of little tiny details that you can really accomplish in person compared to just talking through a meeting or talking on the phone or through text messages."
Exactly. And not surprisingly, Bell was admittedly behind when he stepped on the field on Tuesday. He was only able to get a handful of reps, mostly in 7 on 7 drills. He spent much of his time eaves-dropping on the huddle, then watching his teammates run the plays he's still trying to learn. He was taking mental reps and playing catch-up, when he could have been playing instead.
"Of course," Bell said, when asked if he was behind his teammates in learning Gase's offense. "Just because of the fact that they've been here longer and they've heard the terminology longer. But football is football. It's still mainly the same plays or running the same routes. That's why I wasn't worried about coming here and learning the offense. I'm a smart player and I'm going to show what I can do."
He's not just a smart player. He's a great player. He averaged 1,279 rushing yards, 628 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns over his last two seasons, even though he averaged only 13 games. And if Gase's scheme is as "amazing for me" as Bell believes it will be, he might even be able to do better than that. Bell thinks quarterback Sam Darnold can actually help make him a better player. Gase, a brilliant offensive mind, seems to drool over things that Bell will allow him to do.
But Bell still has to do more. He has to be a leader. Even if he didn't want the responsibility, his stature gives him no choice.
"Out there on the practice field today I noticed guys were really watching me,'' Bell said. "Which was a good thing. I love the fact that guys will lean on me, count on me."
They are watching him and counting on him, which is why he needed to be here, and why he needs to be here next week. No, it won't matter at all if he has a great season. But for that to happen, he's now got to catch up on learning the offense and getting used to his teammates.
And he's got to play catch-up on learning how to be a leader, too.