When the New York Jets host the Pittsburgh Steelers on the second-to-last Sunday of the regular season this weekend, it will mark Le’Veon Bell‘s first game against the organization that drafted him and the one with which he parted ways this offseason after a contentious contract standoff.
Though the reunion-slash-revenge game is set to take place in the Meadowlands, Bell expects to see, and hear from, a heavy Steelers contingent split on its former star running back.
“It’ll probably be 50-50,” Bell said Thursday of what he expects Pittsburgh fans’ reactions will be Sunday, per ESPN’s Rich Cimini. “I think half will be happy to see me and still love me, and half that hates me, despises me. It is what it is. I’m going to show love, regardless. Anybody who’s wearing my jersey, I’ll go sign it. It’s going to be fun.”
Drafted by Pittsburgh in the second round in 2013, Bell emerged quickly as one of the game’s most dynamic backs, a threat on the ground and in the passing game. In five years in black and yellow, Bell tallied 5,336 rushing yards and 2,660 receiving yards, good for 7,996 yards from scrimmage and a league-best 129.0 scrimmage YPG over that span.
But when the Steelers attempted to franchise tag Bell for the second straight season in 2018, Bell refused to sign the tender and ended up sitting out the entire season. In 2019, the back hit free agency, where few teams sought the services of a running back of his caliber at his price tag. Bell eventually signed with the Jets on a four-year, $52.5 million deal and hasn’t looked back since.
“No, last year was last year and two years ago was two years ago,” he said. “I’m over it now. I’m past it. I’m here. I’m with the New York Jets, and I’m happy.”
Bell’s first season in Gotham Green, however, would suggest otherwise. The running back has yet to crack over 100 rushing yards in a game this year and is averaging just 83.1 scrimmage yards per game. His 4.1 yards per touch, 3.3 yards per attempt and 52 rushing yards per game would all be career-lows if the season ended Thursday.
“I’m happy where I’m at,” he said. “The way things are going, obviously it’s not ideal with the way our record is. But like I said in Week 2, Week 3, this is kind of like rebuilding. I want to be a part of it and see it grow.”
The 5-9 Jets have been out of postseason contention for weeks now but are looking to finish the season strong with competent, competitive showings against postseason hopeful Pittsburgh (8-6) and playoff-bound Buffalo (10-4).
In a down season for New York, MetLife Stadium will surely feel less like a Jets home game and more like a neutral-site showdown swathed with Terrible Towels. All of them will be waving for the Steelers; some of them will be waving specifically against Bell, who left for gang-greener pastures and doesn’t regret it.