It was a violent play that took place about midway through practice Monday and, for a moment, you didn’t really know what to think of it.
Le’Veon Bell, the Jets’ prized offseason acquisition and quite possibly the linchpin to their offensive success, was running the ball up the middle in a team drill and was met by a ferocious hit from linebacker Brandon Copeland that was so impactful it sent Bell airborne and onto his back.
It was a hold-your-breath moment. Good defensive play by Copeland? Or an overzealous hit by a defender on one of the team’s indispensable offensive stars during a training camp practice?
This, remember, is a running back who hasn’t played in a game since the 2017 season and whom the Jets are paying $14 million per year.
Bell bounced right up to his feet and went on to the next play without so much as jawing at Copeland.
About an hour later, Bell told reporters exactly what he thought about that hit.
“I loved it,’’ he said. “A nice pop. I haven’t really felt it in 15, 16, 17 months. It gets you back right a little bit. It felt good. I feel like when I’m getting hit in practice and hitting the ground, that’s game-like. It helps prepare for the game.’’
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Bell did not play in the preseason opener Thursday. There are indications that he won’t play this Thursday night in Atlanta, and it’s possible he might not play a single down in preseason.
He is not hurt. He’s merely being protected by head coach Adam Gase, whose first priority is for Bell to be ready for Sept. 8, for the regular-season opener against the Bills.
Protecting him is totally understandable. Waiting for the season opener to be Bell’s first game action, however, is not.
Bell can be hit as many times as he wants in training camp by his own teammates, but nothing he does in those sessions is proper simulation for an actual game. Particularly for a running back who hasn’t taken a handoff and been hit in anger by an opposing defense since Jan. 14, 2018.
Make no mistake: Bell burns to play in a game. He wanted in during last week’s opener against the Giants when the starters played for one series and quarterback Sam Darnold teased him on the sideline when he said, “Oh, you want to play, don’t you?’’
“You know I want to play so bad,’’ Bell told Darnold.
“I can’t wait,’’ Bell said Monday. “I understand they’re going to protect me from myself.’’
To Bell’s credit, he’s been all about whatever Gase and the coaching staff want and hasn’t uttered a word of complaint about not playing.
“I want to do whatever Coach Gase wants me to do,’’ Bell said. “We just take it day-to-day, week-to-week. Each day in practice they’ve been upping my reps. I do a lot of conditioning and running. They’re getting me prepared for game settings.’’
The best way for Bell to prepare for game settings is to play in a game — even if for only an offensive possession or two. It doesn’t have to be Thursday night in Atlanta. But if not then, it’s imperative for him to play a series or two in the third preseason game — home against the Saints.
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Gase, who said Monday he hasn’t discussed who will and won’t play Thursday with his coaches and players, didn’t rule that out. But he didn’t rule it in, either.
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“I don’t know if it’s necessary,’’ Gase said. “After watching him practice, he’s the one delivering more hits than anybody. I feel like he’s ready to go. But if we have a discussion and we feel at some point that he should get some game time, we will.
“He’s been great with the, ‘Whatever you think is best.’ But I do ask his opinion of what he thinks is best for him. If we have a conversation and he’s good where he’s at [just preparing in practice,] then maybe he doesn’t play this preseason.’’
Does Bell believe he needs a few carries in preseason?
“If I get them, they’ll help,’’ he said. “But I don’t think I’ll need them. I’ve been playing for so long it’s going to naturally come back to me and I’ll adjust to the game. A couple plays and I’m ready to go.’’
He should get those “couple of plays’’ out of the way in preseason so he’s truly “ready to go’’ for the beginning of the real season.