Le’Veon Bell made headlines last year when he extended his training camp holdout for the entire 2018 season, choosing not to play for the Steelers unless they gave him the contract he felt he deserved or traded him to a team that would.
This offseason, Bell was dealt to the New York Jets, who made him the second-highest paid running back in football with a 4-year, $52 million deal to be the bell cow behind Sam Darnold entering his second season as quarterback. In his 5-year career, Bell has rushed for 5,336 yards and 35 touchdowns, as he carried a heavy load in Pittsburgh’s offense. After sitting out last year, Bell vows to be back to his uber-productive self in New York, going so far as to offer fantasy football players an apology and promise to produce at a spectacular level after last year’s holdout.
While Bell will be on the field this season, a pair of other high-profile backs are following his lead and currently threatening to sit the season if they aren’t paid their value. Melvin Gordon of the Chargers and Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys are both still not with their teams as they look to get a deal on par with the likes of Bell. Gordon seems the most likely to sit out the full season like Bell or get traded, as the expectation is the Cowboys eventually come correct with an offer to Elliott. Still, Bell is thrilled to see other young backs seeking out their worth early on in their careers, using whatever leverage they have to get paid at a position that is brutal on players and often sees top players deteriorate at a faster rate than others.
Bell recently spoke with Uproxx Sports on behalf of Madden 20 as they launch their new Superstar KO mode, which he got the chance to demo in New York, and spoke about his excitement for this season, feeling healthier than ever after a season off, his full support of Elliott and Gordon, and his thoughts on the Jets and his new QB, Sam Darnold.
We’re now a week or so away from the season. How’s camp gone and how excited are you to get back on the field after a year off?
Camp has gone well. I’ve been working myself back in football playing shape, and it feels good. I’m excited to get back out there and make some plays, and really get some excitement in the stands and show people that I’m a better player than I was before. So, I’m excited and I can’t wait to get back on the field.
What was last year like for you and how difficult was it for you as a competitor to sit out, knowing what you were doing was right for you, but at the same time it’s just gotta be tough?
It was tough to do, because of me loving the game of football. Me having to sit down and watch the game as a fan, in a sense, it was difficult for me, but I had to do what I could to make sure I stayed in shape but at the same time resting my body. You know, it was kind of a blessing in disguise sitting out the whole year, because once I got back on the field and started my training back up in early January, end of December, when I started my training back up intense, my body felt so good. Usually when you play a football season, you’ll have little nicks and bruises and kinks that really never go away. You might have your offseason where there’s like a month where you don’t train or something, but then you get right back to it.
For me it really was a blessing in disguise, cause it got my body fully back to close to 100 percent. I won’t say 100 percent, cause I’m not no baby, you know, straight out the womb, but as close to 100 percent as I’ve ever felt. I’m happy where I am today and how everything went. Obviously I wish it went smoother, in a sense, but I definitely can’t complain about how my body feels and where I am because everything’s going well for me.
I do a lot of NBA coverage and player empowerment is a big topic in basketball. We’re seeing that more now in the NFL too, particularly at the running back spot. Right now you’ve got Zeke and Melvin going through a similar situation as you. Are you glad to see guys, especially at a position where, like you mention, you do get worn out so fast, seeking out their worth as early as possible and making sure they’re setting themselves up as best as they can?
Oh, I love to see it and I’m in their corner. I’m in their corner so much, because I think what I did is opening some guys’ eyes to look at things differently. Really in two or three years, when people kinda see the way I’m performing, it’s really going to show, just because of the way my body feels. Football players in general take a lot of hits and we do a lot of cutting and lifting, and a lot of people don’t understand the things we put our bodies through. So, the fact that guys like Zeke and Melvin are trying to get their worth early on, it means everything in the world because it means they actually understand exactly what’s going on. I’m in their corner. I’m in their corner like no other, and it kind of feels good that I might be able to open some eyes and help guys out. You know, maybe in the sense that it helps them for the rest of their career, or it helps them understand their value or extend their career longer, whatever it is I’m glad I could.
You come to a team in the Jets where it’s been awhile since they’ve had success, and you have a young QB who hasn’t been through it. What’s been your message to the team about what it takes to be a playoff contender and get to that level as a group?
Really just taking it one day at a time. A lot of people … not necessarily worry about the playoffs, but talk about the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Obviously, we are playing the game of football and that should be your goal — you should always want to get to the Super Bowl — but the thing that separates teams is the way you work. The way you go out there each and every day, not just on the practice field but in meetings, the classroom, and the way you interact with your teams. I feel like once you create a bond with your team, it’s easier to go harder for somebody when you care about them and know what they’re going through maybe off the field. So, I try to bring that into the locker room, just cause of the fact that I know what it takes to get to an AFC Championship game. I’ve been there, so I try to bring some of those things to the locker room and guys see the way that I practice.
I’m not just going through the motions at practice. When I practice, I’m practicing. Literally to get better, I’m trying to work on my game so I can be a better player. And it kind of becomes contagious, when guys see me every single day on film like I’m just finishing, running the ball better, catching the ball better, blocking better, picking up blitzes better, understanding the offense, I know what the F or the Z’s supposed to do, you’re helping not only yourself but your teammates. Your teammates are going to try and do the same thing and mimic that, because I’ve had success in the NFL, and those guys, when they try to mimic me and something I’m doing, they might do it different. I look at them like, ‘Ooh, I want to try it like that,’ and they make me better. I’m just trying to create that energy on the field and in the locker room for my new team, cause I understand what it takes to get there. It’s not going to be easy, but I feel like we’ve got the team, the talent, the coaches, and we have a great city and a great fan base to get us over that hump.
You have a new quarterback in Sam Darnold going into his second year. What have you seen from him in camp and how good can he be this year and then building on that into the future?
I think Sam, the sky’s the limit for him. He’s got all the talent in the world. Obviously it’s going to take him learning the offense and learning his teammates and the personnel, not just with him but the guys around him too, but I think with Sam he’s a special player. He has all the tools to be a great quarterback in this league. There’s nothing he can’t do — he can run, he can make plays outside the pocket, he can make quick reads, he has the arm strength, the accuracy, he has the demeanor to take the huddle. At the same time, he’s a chill guy. Every aspect you want from a franchise quarterback, he has.
You’re partnered with Madden which is launching the new Superstar KO mode. What can you tell us about that and what it brings to the game that’s something a little different?
Yeah, it’s a lot different. You know, the KO mode is I guess it’s a quicker game play. It’s real quick. You’ve got the Ultimate players, where their attributes are already set in the game, so it’s not like a regular game. You get to play with legendary players at the same time you’re playing with normal players, and the game is a lot quicker. I like it a lot. I was still trying to play it before I got in the interview, but, yeah, this game mode is a lot different and a lot of people are going to like it.
Have you been a Madden guy for a long time?
I have. I have. I’ve been playing Madden since I can remember, like, six or seven years old.
Who is your all-time favorite player in Madden? Like, if you could bring someone from an old game into the current one, who would it be?
So we got the 2004 Michael Vick, and we got Madden 2000 Barry Sanders.