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Le’Veon Bell’s return to East Rutherford allowed the Jets to appreciate the reaping of rushing benefits

The New York Jets did not prepare a welcome-back highlight reel for Le’Veon Bell’s return to MetLife Stadium. Frankly, Bell’s New York highlights probably wouldn’t be enough to fill the timed requirements of an NFL TV timeout.

Bell returned as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, his first waltz through a green East Rutherford since his brief Jets tenure came to an end in October 2020. His return carried little, if any, fanfare with it, even if he holds a lasting New York legacy as one of the last big-budget bombs (four years, $35 million guaranteed) of the Mike Maccagnan era.

True to the Jets’ star-crossed nature, Bell played a role in the team’s eventual demise: a 12-yard reception on third down kept a Tampa scoring drive alive before Bell scored the final points of Tampa’s comeback from 14 points down on a two-point conversion, the finishing touches of an 18-point run that gave the defending Super Bowl champions a 28-24 victory.

It’s easy to see why Bell’s return was mostly disregarded. For one thing, Bell is far removed from the All-Pro form that netted him that massive deal from the Jets, as the past two seasons have seen him take on bit roles for championship contenders. Tampa Bay, in fact, only came calling because of medical absences to established regulars.

Furthermore, if the Jets were to welcome back members from their 2019-20 squads, they’d probably be making (short) highlight reels every week: of the 22 men that repped the New York starting lineup in 2020’s Week 1 contest in Buffalo, only eight are still on the team.

Needless to say, the Jets aren’t going to fish for nostalgics from a team that lost its first 13 games and reached depths that even the doomed Rich Kotite era managed to avoid. Bell is a recent relic, representative of a hopeful era of New York football gone completely awry. The signing was risky from the get-go, with New York set to host his return from a year-long contract holdout that marred his final season in Pittsburgh.

It was done, however, in the name of a good cause: making the new franchise quarterback as comfortable as possible.

At thet time, it was Sam Darnold that was being groomed for the New York spotlight. Darnold’s rookie season ended on a hopeful note but it was clear that he needed help. A rushing attack headlined by Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell, and Elijah McGuire finished 26th in the league and did little to inspire long-term confidence.

Bell immediately knew he was called upon to make Darnold’s life easier, to make sure the Jets didn’t have to rely on aerial miracles to win games.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to try to make his job as easy as possible,” Bell said in his first New York statements, per notes from the Jets. “Seeing a guy like him, so young and so talented and knowing, maybe he needs another weapon. You never know what he can do with another weapon.”

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Two seasons later, the Jets have finally found a run game to complement the growing progress of a fledgling franchise thrower. But Bell and Darnold are nowhere to be found, at least in a green uniform. Bell’s Sunday return presented a strong landmark for the New York run game, a strong barometer and showcase for its progress.

Another high selection has already come in to take over for Darnold in the form of Zach Wilson. When it came to stocking his arsenal, the Jets have understandably worked with a slightly minimalist approach when it comes to the run game. The Bell debacle ensures that it will be a long time before the Jets ever spend major capital on their ground group again.

But, thanks to Michael Carter, they’re more than happy to live with that.

The worst-kept football secret in New York probably came through the idea that Carter, chosen in the fourth round of last spring’s draft, was envisioned to be the green running back of the future by Jets management. A more-than-capable veteran placeholder, two-time Super Bowl participant Tevin Coleman, was signed as a short-term option but injuries have prevented him from making the desired impact.

Instead, it’s been Carter that has risen to steal the offensive show and update the rookie chapters of the Jets’ record books.

It’s a concept that defies fairness, but this Jets’ season that was never destined to end in the playoffs is going to be judged solely on how Wilson looks. Early returns were pessimistic but the second overall pick has shown plenty of promise since returning from a sprained MCL suffered in November.

While Wilson and Co. have had trouble stringing together a full 60 minutes of consistent football, the assurance Carter and his fellow minimalist projects Ty Johnson (a veteran free agent and sixth-round pick from Detroit) and Austin Walter (an XFL refugee who spent time with offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur in San Francisco) have created has helped the quarterback adjust to the NFL game.

Anchored by Carter’s 945 yards from scrimmage (sixth amongst all rookies), the Jets’ run game has been one of the driving forces behind Wilson’s continued understanding of the professional level. Four of the six best rushing outputs of the year (where the Jets have earned at least 100 yards on the ground) have come in the six weeks since Wilson returned.

The team put up 273 alone in the Dec. 26 win over Jacksonville, a game where Wilson got in the fun by posting the most prolific running day for a quarterback in Jets history. Not to be outdone, Carter did his part with 118 yards on 16 carries, becoming the first New York freshman to reach triple digits since Joe McKnight in the 2011-12 season finale.

The group managed to keep things on a steady pace after Carter missed most of the Tampa Bay game with a concussion (though not before unleashing a 55-yard run that set up the Jets’ first score of the day), as Johnson put up 82 yards on eight touches while Walter ran the ball for 49 yards on 14 carries in a respectable showing against the league’s third-ranked run defense, especially considering top blocker George Fant had to likewise leave the game.

The emergence of Carter, with Johnson, Walter, and Coleman serving as affordable, healthy complements (that latter trio averages 4.2 yards a carry) has helped a long-dormant New York offense take long-awaited steps downfield.

One of the most unsung contributions they’ve made is helping Wilson limit his aerial mistakes by making sure he isn’t forced to excessively throw. When Wilson got hurt against New England on Oct. 10, he had thrown nine interceptions over his first five full games. Since his return and the rise of the run game, he has thrown only two, none coming over the last four games, where the Jests have averaged over 150 yards on the ground.

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In the aftermath of the narrow yet respectably heartbreaking Tampa Bay loss, head coach Robert Saleh praised the run game for providing “explosives” and mentioned that the run game and quarterbacking had improved the most since the Jets’ early elimination from playoff consideration. It’s not far-fetched in the slightest to suggest that the two are connected.

This is a stark contrast to the failed Darnold/Bell era, a forgotten footnote in the Jets’ recent ledgers.

The traditional, first-glance statistics were bad enough – Bell never put up a 100-yard game in a Jets uniform – but damage control felt like a weekly tradition that never truly went away, a ritual where Bell had to constantly deny that he was fighting with then-head coach Adam Gase or was seeking out a trade elsewhere.

Peace has settled into the New York lineup and has allowed the team to take full advantage of consequence-free opportunities of research and development over another meaningless slate of December/January football.

Granted, this is the Jets we’re talking about here, so not everything is perfect quite yet: Carter’s concussion was his second game-ending injury of the season (previously suffering an ankle sprain after picking up 63 on nine carries in November’s visit to Miami), raising questions about his durability.

But, with the top trio under contract for next season (Coleman is due to hit free agency while the Jets may have to make a decision on 2020 fourth-rounder La’Mical Perine, who has fallen out of the rotation), the team not only has a solid offensive foundation on which to move and build forward beyond the position room but they don’t have to worry about rushing on what’s sure to be a gargantuan offseason to-do list.

The Jets (4-12) conclude their 2021-22 season on Sunday afternoon against the Buffalo Bills (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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Geoff Magliocchetti is a veteran football writer with years of credentialed experience with the Jets and Giants. Email: geoffmags90@gmail.com
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