FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Before the first game of the season, Jets running back Le’Veon Bell told Coach Adam Gase not to hold him back.
He had not played in more than 600 days after sitting out last season in a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was also adjusting to a new offense, but said he was ready to make an immediate impact.
Gase has done as Bell asked — more out of necessity than anything else. As the offense around Bell crumbles, he has become even more crucial to the Jets than they could have imagined when they signed him to a four-year, $52.5 million deal in March.
The Jets visit the New England Patriots (2-0) on Sunday with an 0-2 record, their third-string quarterback as the starter and only one offensive touchdown so far this season (a 9-yard reception by Bell in the opener against Buffalo).
“I’ve been really excited about him,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said after practice Thursday. “We are very fortunate to have him.”
Bell has earned 41 percent of the Jets’ yardage this season; the ball has been thrown or handed to him 53 percent of the time. Part of that is because of a slew of injuries, another part to poor performances from the wide receivers and the offensive line.
“Of course it’s frustrating,” Bell said Wednesday about the state of the offense, “just because of the fact that we aren’t scoring points.”
Bell had a combined 92 rushing and receiving yards in the Jets’ Week 1 loss to the Bills, He followed that up with 68 rushing yards and 61 receiving yards, about half of the team’s total offense, in a 23-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Monday night.
“I thought he gave us everything he had,” Gase said about Bell’s performance in Week 2. “I don’t know how much more he could have done.”
Bell, however, criticized himself. Two plays, he said, have especially troubled him, a fumble and a failed fourth-down reception when he was stopped a yard short of a first down. Both plays halted the Jets’ desperate attempts to build momentum.
“When I get the opportunity to make a play, I have to make sure I make it,” Bell said. “I can’t miss opportunities.”
Bell’s responsibility for carrying the Jets became much greater when Sam Darnold, the Jets’ second-year quarterback, received a diagnosis of mononucleosis last week, which will keep him out until at least Week 5. Darnold’s replacement, Trevor Siemian, started against the Browns but took a hard hit that left him with a season-ending ankle injury.
“Next-man mentality is real, but let’s all be honest: When you lose your starting quarterback — Sam Darnold was the face of your franchise — there are going to be bumps,” Loggains said. “Let’s not sugarcoat this thing. That’s a difficult situation to go through.”
Luke Falk, who was signed off the practice squad just hours before the game Monday night, filled in for the injured Siemian and will start against the Patriots on Sunday.
“Every single year that I’ve played football there have been injuries and things not expected all the time,” Bell said. “That’s how football goes.”
He has been affected, too, missing a practice with a sore shoulder last week and being limited in another. Bell had a magnetic resonance imaging exam, but it showed no structural damage. He was sore after Monday’s game, he said, but fine to practice.
“We’re a young group,” Bell said. “Obviously we’ve had a lot of injuries and guys substituting in and out. We’re still trying to put everything together, we just have to do it quickly.”