EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When Le'Veon Bell takes the field on Opening Day, he will have gone 19 months without playing in an actual NFL game. And as much as he says he'll be ready, and the Jets believe him, there's no way anyone can know for sure.
But that's OK. A little mystery is better than an untimely injury - especially one that could ruin the Jets entire season. That's why Adam Gase is smart to be cautious with his star running back. And the decision he announced on Sunday night to keep the 27-year-old Bell out for the entire preseason is absolutely the right move.
The last thing the Jets need is to lose Bell before they even have a chance to use him. They spent $52.5 million on him in March, even upping their offer to seal the deal, because they knew he'd be the linchpin of Gase's attack. They viewed him as the perfect weapon to help their young, star quarterback and a way to take the pressure off their undermanned receiving corps.
Lose Bell, and there's a chance the Jets lose the entire season. And what a waste that would be.
"He's in a good place right now," Gase said on Sunday night, after the Jets' annual Green & White practice at the Meadowlands. "The way he's working in practice, the way he's running the ball in practice, I feel really good about him once we get to the regular season."
Gase said was "99 percent" sure that's the way he was going to go with Bell. But he had left the door slightly open until Friday night, when he watched linebacker Avery Williamson go down with a torn ACL. Suddenly it was 100 percent. He had already lost one key player to a meaningless injury in a meaningless game. There was no way he was going to lose two.
Still, it wasn't a completely easy decision, because there's a good argument to be made that Bell needs to get in a game before he gets into a game for real. He spent a year working out on his own while having his contract dispute with the Steelers. And he's participated in three weeks of mostly non-contact practices with the Jets.
He says his legs are fresh and his body feels rested. Gase said he's impressed with how he's practicing and his level of conditioning. The Jets even increased his reps in practice last week and will do it again this week as they keep pushing to get him ready.
But the truth is no one knows how his body will react to the first hit, or the first time he's running full speed in a game and has to kick it into an extra gear. A football game can't be adequately simulated, certainly not under the NFL's practice rules.
"He's not really going to know until we get him in a real game," Gase said. "But I feel like he's in pretty good shape. He's been contacted about as good as anybody out on the practice field. So I feel confident that he'll be ready to go Week 1."
So yes, there's risk there, but it's better to take that risk in Game 1 then in a meaningless preseason game, where he'd probably only touch the ball a handful of times. There's no reward there. Only an incalculable risk.
So if he is in danger of pulling a muscle or worse the first time he gets into a game at full speed, at least let it be a game that counts.