Inside the decline of Jets' Le'Veon Bell, who carries 'vengeance' into 2020

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- No one in the New York Jets' organization said it publicly, but there were whispers: Le'Veon Bell seemed a bit off last season. He looked a half-step slower than in the past. Did he gain weight? Was it the year off? Did he miss the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line?

Bell's first season in New York was a bust. After several months of reflection, he confirmed the whispers, admitting, "Looking back on it, I'm like, 'Dang, I wasn't even close to where I wanted to be.'"

The Jets paid him $14.5 million in the first year of a massive contract, and the payoff was 3.2 yards per carry -- the worst in franchise history (minimum: 200 attempts). His decline was stunning, actually. In 2018, he was ranked seventh in ESPN's NFL Rank of the top 100 players. He sat out 2018 because of a contract dispute with the Steelers, but he still had enough of his reputation to land the 55th spot in the 2019 top 100.

This year, he doesn't even make the cut in ESPN's 2020 NFL Rank.

Perhaps humbled, Bell reported to training camp in the best shape of his life (so he said), predicting a career season at 28. He's a fierce competitor, but sometimes the ferocity dies a little. He admitted as much, saying he lost his edge during the 2019 season. Sometimes an athlete needs a dose of adversity to recapture what made him great in the first place.

"Le'Veon is such a competitive guy and, in my opinion, he's one of the most talented running backs in the league," said former Jets great Curtis Martin, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who won the NFL rushing title in 2004 at age 31. "I just think he would -- and probably should -- have a chip on his shoulder after last year. I think he'll do his best to come back with a vengeance."

Bell wasn't totally to blame for last season's downfalls. In many ways, he was Exhibit A in the "free-agency-isn't-a-cure-all" argument. Success doesn't always travel well in the NFL. So much of a player's performance depends on environment.

After a fabulous run with the Steelers, a stable organization with a strong offensive line and playmakers, Bell picked up and left, chasing the money to an organization that could be described as the anti-Steelers -- perennial losers with constant change. Two months after the signing, the general manager who made the deal -- Mike Maccagnan -- was fired.

Welcome to New York, kid.

Bell's blocking stunk and his coach, Adam Gase, didn't use him as much as he wanted. He also found out Gase wasn't on board with the signing, hardly the foundation for a strong relationship. To his credit, Bell didn't throw anyone under the bus, saying he was the reason for his least productive season.

"I feel like I left some yards out there," he said. "There were holes there."

Not many, though.

Bell averaged a league-low minus-0.2 yards per rush before close-in (yards gained before the first defender closes within 1 yard of the ball carrier), per NFL Next Gen Stats (minimum 150 carries). The line gave him no place to run. The line was so bad that four of the five Jets starters were shown the door after the season.

"That was Le'Veon's first year behind that line and I think it takes more time than that to really click with your offensive line to understand their tendencies," Martin said. "That will affect the way you run. I think it was more a matter of circumstance than it was Le'Veon falling off. I don't think he's fallen off at all. If I ever see it, I'll be honest with you and I'll tell you. I don't think he's near there, yet."

Gase took a lot of heat for the manner in which he deployed Bell, who went from 21.4 carries per game to 16.3. His usage as a wide receiver also declined, although not as much as you might think. In Pittsburgh, he lined up wide or in the slot on 12% of his snaps; it was 8% with the Jets. Gase is confident those numbers will increase as long as the offense can generate more plays.

Another problem for Bell was his supporting cast, not nearly as talented as his Pittsburgh crew. As a result, defenses ganged up on him. He faced a loaded box (more defenders than blockers) on 36.3% of his rushes, compared to 24% in Pittsburgh. The Jets still don't have any Pro Bowl players around him, but their hope is that a more experienced quarterback in Sam Darnold will change the way defenses attack them.

Great runners have the ability to make something out of nothing, either by force or elusiveness. Bell didn't do that last season. His longest run was 19 yards and he reached 15 mph on six runs, per NFL Next Gen Stats. The Jacksonville Jaguars' Leonard Fournette, a similarly built runner, did it 44 times.

Running backs usually don't get better with age. Of the top 200 individual rushing seasons in NFL history, only 41 were accomplished by players 28 and older, according to Pro Football Reference. The sweet spot is 26 years old (35 of the top 200). After that, the numbers drop steadily.

History says Bell is on the downside, so it's fair to wonder if he can recapture the magic that allowed him to produce nearly 8,000 yards from scrimmage in his first five seasons. Bell says he draws inspiration from Jets teammate Frank Gore, 37, who is beginning his 16th season.

"I try to make sure I do all the right things, the small things, so I can continue to move upward," he said. "I'm not really worried about age. People talk about age with a running back: Is this the age when they fall off?

"Frank Gore is telling me, 'They're going to put a number on it, but you're going to defy the number.' He always talks about it: 'You can defy the number, Le'Veon. You can do that.' That's what I embrace."