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Le’Veon Bell gives Bucs a puncher’s chance

After losing Leonard Fournette for the rest of the regular season, the Bucs signed Bell, who had been focusing on a career in boxing.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, left, greets running back Le'Veon Bell, right, at practice Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, left, greets running back Le'Veon Bell, right, at practice Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa. [ Buccaneers.com ]
Published Dec. 23, 2021|Updated Dec. 23, 2021

TAMPA — A couple of days ago, Le’Veon Bell believed he had hung up his helmet and shoulder pads for good. Cut by the Ravens last month after five forgettable games in which he averaged only a handful of carries, the 29-year-old running back had a backup plan.

He was going to be a fighter. He had decided the only thing that could get him out of the boxing ring was a chance to win a Super Bowl ring with the Bucs.

“I got to the point where I had thought about kind of calling it quits due to the fact it wasn’t working out for me the last couple spots I’d been at,” Bell said Wednesday. “This was literally the only spot that I felt could make me want to play football and go out there and be excited to play.”“This was literally the only spot that I felt could make me want to play football and go out there and be excited to play.”

Bell was working out in a gym when his agent called to tell him the Bucs had a roster spot for him after Leonard Fournette suffered a hamstring injury during Sunday’s loss to the Saints, forcing Fournette to go on injured reserve.

Ronald Jones, who nearly rushed for 1,000 yards last season, was taking Fournette’s spot. But the Bucs needed a steady veteran who could make an immediate impact on third down as a receiver.

“Once you get that phone call, it was like, ‘Oh, yes, this is it,’ " Bell said. “It’s something that I didn’t even think twice about. Once I got the call, it was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go. This is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for.’ "

In two days, Bell went from challenging actor Jake Paul to a boxing match on social media to practicing in Tampa with linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul.

Newly signed Bucs running back Le'Veon Bell speaks to the media Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa.
Newly signed Bucs running back Le'Veon Bell speaks to the media Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa. [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]

Nobody is expecting Bell to return to the form that made him the best running back in the NFL during his five seasons with the Steelers (2013-17), where he was a teammate of Bucs receiver Antonio Brown. Bell was an All-Pro twice, earned three Pro Bowl selections and rushed for more than 1,200 yards three times.

Bell cemented his place in NFL history in 2018 when he received the franchise tag from the Steelers, refused to sign it and chose to sit out the season. He became a free agent in 2019 after the Steelers said they wouldn’t put the tag on him again.

Though he hasn’t been the same running back since, Bell has said he has no regrets about the decision.

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The Bucs are his fourth team since he left the Steelers. His best game this season with the Ravens came in Week 9 against the Vikings, when he rushed for 48 yards. He didn’t total more than 18 in his other four appearances before being released last month.

“I think it kind of humbled me, I feel, in a good way, because it made me work so much harder,” Bell said. “I know how bad I want to help the team win and that I can play football. I’m still a great football player.”

The release by the Ravens turned his focus to boxing. He said the workout regimen put him in the best shape of his life.

“Football is a little more running,” Bell said. “I think it’s more like explosive running. You go hard for four or five seconds and you kind of like stop. You go hard for four or five seconds and stop.

“Whereas boxing, it’s natural. You just keep going and keep going. You don’t really get as much rest. So I think cardio-wise, I could go all day in half-bursts here and there, and I think that’s going to help me.”

When Bell arrived Wednesday to take his physical, he was greeted in the training room by Brown, who is coming off a three-game suspension for misrepresenting his vaccination status. Bell had never formally met Tom Brady until they shook hands and talked before practice.

“He pulled me to the side and talked to me and let me know, ‘Hey, if you need anything, ask me. Come to me before Coach (Bruce Arians),’ " Bell said. “Just making sure that I’m comfortable, you know? I’m glad he did that, because he’s not a person I’ve kind of ever talked to off the field.”

Bell may only be keeping the seat warm until Fournette returns for the playoffs. But that’s OK with him.

“It was a great opportunity,” Bell said. “It’s something you really can’t turn down, playing with Coach Arians and Tom Brady and Rob (Gronkowski) and (Brown).”

Arians said there’s a chance Bell could play Sunday at Carolina.

“Depends on how fast he can catch up,” Arians said. “He’s been a good receiver in the past and played in this offense in Pittsburgh for a while. We’ll see what he can learn and what he can give us in the next few weeks.”

Bell said this week he must gain Brady’s trust by showing that he can protect him on passing downs and knowing where to be when Brady checks the ball down.

“I think the more I learn and (by) making sure I’m always in the right spots, the more confident (Brady is) going to be in giving me the rock,” Bell said.

That would give the Bucs a puncher’s chance to win the NFC South and go deep in the playoffs.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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