Two decades ago, the New York Jets rocked the NFL with a record-setting contract for a free-agent running back. It was Curtis Martin, who now has a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As a player, Martin had a huge fan in Groveport, Ohio. The kid’s name was Le’Veon Bell, who has said on numerous occasions that Martin was his favorite player. This is a full-circle kind of story because now Bell is the Jets’ splashy free-agent signing, and Martin is the fan.
“I definitely think Le’Veon is one of the best, if not the best back in the NFL,” Martin said Wednesday in a phone interview with ESPN. “I always say, if I had three backs I could choose or draft, it’s either Le’Veon, Saquon [Barkley] or Todd Gurley. I think they’re the three best backs in the league. To have him is a huge asset.”
Martin left a message for Bell to congratulate him on his deal, which was agreed upon late Tuesday. When it becomes official, it will be a four-year, $52.5 million contract, which dwarfs Martin’s six-year, $36 million deal from 1998. Martin is thrilled his old team landed Bell in free agency, and he is touched that Bell admired him as a kid.
“For him to say that, I take it as a huge compliment because I can only dream of having the talent he has,” Martin said. “If I had his talent and ability, I would’ve probably passed Emmitt Smith before I retired.”
That’s quite a compliment, considering Martin’s accomplishments. He’s the fifth-leading rusher of all time, sitting 4,254 yards behind Smith. A knee injury cut his career short in 2005. Martin always prided himself on being someone who outworked his opponents, compensating for modest athletic ability.
Martin loves Bell’s raw ability, as well as the instincts he shows when attacking a defense.
“What I like most about him is his vision,” he said. “I always pay attention to a running back’s vision because I’ve met guys who were the quickest and the fastest, but they didn’t have the vision to be able to anticipate the defensive moves. You can always tell when a guy has good vision. I can tell, when Le’Veon is running, he’s not just putting a move on the man that’s in front of him. He’s setting himself up for the next man that’s coming. That’s just a special type of guy. I believe I had that vision. I just didn’t have the ability to go with it.
“I can always appreciate that about a running back. He has a lot of natural athletic attributes, but what I value most is the vision that he has. He can be patient and set up his blocks.”
The Jets’ rushing attack could use a jolt. They’ve had only 18 1,000-yard rushing seasons in franchise history (seven by Martin) and only one in the past six years (Chris Ivory, 2015). They hope Bell, 27, can galvanize the offense, which hasn’t functioned like a legitimate NFL offense since 2015.
“Le’Veon could’ve gone to any team in the NFL, and he’s going to improve that team,” Martin said. “He’s just that type of guy. There are guys who are at the top of the game in their respective positions, and he’s definitely one of those guys. There are certain guys … if you get an Aaron Rodgers, or if you get a Tom Brady or Patrick [Mahomes], they’re going to be an asset to any team they go to. Le’Veon … Antonio Brown, those guys, their level of talent is, no matter where they go, they’re going to make an impact.”
The Jets are betting big money on it, with a total of $35 million in guarantees. Bell will be under an intense spotlight, though Martin doesn’t believe he will be affected by the scrutiny of having to validate a massive contract. Martin acknowledged, though, that “there’s a different type of pressure in New York. I don’t think Le’Veon will feel the pressure until the season gets started. It’s something you can’t account for just by what people say to you or hear about New York. No matter what people say, New York is different.”
Bell’s situation is unique in that he sat out last season, embroiled in a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers. A lot of people are wondering how the layoff will impact his game. Martin said a one-year break “would’ve harmed me more than helped me,” but he considered himself a player who needed repetition and work to be successful. He said Bell is so gifted that he can overcome the hiatus.
“I think this rest will have done his body good,” Martin said. “Also, with everything that went on [with his contract], something like this can light a different spark under you and give you a different level of inspiration.”
Martin knows about that. When he left the New England Patriots to sign with the Jets, he had just undergone abdominal surgery. Coach Bill Parcells and assistant general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who negotiated the contract, took some criticism for the bold acquisition. Martin used it as fuel.
“There was a little chip on my shoulder because I remember the Patriots had labeled me as damaged goods because I was coming off an injury,” he said. “So there was a part of me that was like, ‘OK, we’ll see how damaged I am.’ That little chip was really a big chip. It’s one of those little chips that can move mountains.”
Martin ended up enshrined in Canton, not far from Bell’s hometown.