Le’Veon Bell’s return was in question throughout the first nine weeks of the NFL season. And now that his Steelers have improved to 6-2-1 without him in the lineup, it appears he’s content with putting his time in Pittsburgh in his rear view. The latest report said that the team is not expecting him to show up by the Nov. 13 deadline.
Multiple sources have reported Bell won’t rejoin the Steelers in 2018, opting instead to sit out the entire season as the result of a contract impasse with the only team he’s ever known.
Steelers’ running back Le'Veon Bell is unlikely to report to the team by Tuesday's deadline, which would make him ineligible to play the rest of this season, multiple league sources tell ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 11, 2018
Bell was originally expected to report to the Pittsburgh Steelers during their Week 7 bye, but decided to continue his months-long holdout. Then, there was a chance he’d show up right after the trade deadline — but that didn’t come to fruition either. But as the Nov. 13 deadline to show up at practice or be forced to miss the entire season, Bell looked to be on his way to Pittsburgh.
Fairwell Miami— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) November 5, 2018
However, Adam Schefter reported that Bell still hasn’t had any contact with the Steelers. And Bell later tweeted a more puzzling (and upside down) message that “I’m not apologizing for what I believe is right.”
But Steelers owner Art Rooney said the team knew Bell is back in Pittsburgh and they expected he’d report to the team before his Tuesday deadline. Instead, it appears the veteran tailback is set to prove him wrong.
Why is Bell’s decision a big deal?
Bell has been in a standoff with the reigning AFC North champions. He sat out through training camp and the entirety of the preseason in protest of his current contract, a one-year deal via the franchise tag that denies him the long-term guarantees for which he’s been seeking. While he was expected to return for the start of the regular season, he’s now missed more than half the year, forfeiting 10 weeks of paychecks in the process.
The Steelers have fluctuated in his absence. Pittsburgh started its season at 1-2-1, but have since won four straight games to rise to the top of the AFC North. Bell’s replacement, James Conner, has been a big part of that revival.
Conner had nearly identical rushing stats in the Steelers’ wins in Weeks 5 and 6. He had 21 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons, and 19 carries for 111 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals — something Bell took notice of:
That was a nice bounce-back for the second-year player, who had an impressive Week 1 showing, but just 97 rushing yards the following three weeks combined. It continued in Weeks 8 and 9, where he pushed his 100+ yard rushing streak to four straight games.
Could Bell have earned a smooth reunion in PGH?
Bell’s holdout drew the ire of his teammates and coaches when Week 1 practices got underway and the running back still hadn’t shown up. The team’s offensive linemen were especially perturbed by the situation, upset that Bell hadn’t communicated with them:
Maurkice Pouncey is clearly DONE w/ Le’Veon Bell’s absence. Says he’d much prefer Bell just say when he’s going to show up, even if it’s Week 10: “Why play hide and seek? Why let your agent say this? Just man up and tell us what you’re going to do.”— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 5, 2018
General manager Kevin Colbert was less pointed, but he still released a statement to say that he was “disappointed” Bell hadn’t shown up.
Not everyone was with Bell, though. Antonio Brown showed his support for his teammate on Twitter:
“No one wins when the family feuds,” Brown said, via ESPN. “At the end of the day, we’re family.”
Bell has also received support from other players in the league who recognize that the running back fighting for a better contract is a good situation in the long run for players hoping to get a larger slice of the pie. When Earl Thomas’ public feud with the Seahawks ended with a broken leg in Week 4, Bell posted on Instagram that he’ll “continue to be the ‘bad guy’ for ALL of us.”
Both Bell and Thomas are redefining the way players leverage their skills for money and it could be a monumental moment if the running back gets what he’s aiming for when the 2019 offseason comes.
“It sucks having to sit out football,” Bell told ESPN. “I want to play. I want to win games and the playoffs.
”But I’ve gotta take this stand. Knowing my worth and knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches.”
Bell didn’t expect much drama if he were to return in 2018, but it’s unclear how his teammates would respond to a potential comeback in 2019.
“I’ve got a lot of good relationships with players on the team,” Bell told ESPN. “They probably think I backdoored them. But I think they understand the decision. At the end of the day, they said what they said in the media. I’m not really too upset about it. It was a little disappointing, but I understand their side. When I talk to them, I hope they get that side of it.”
Another question, in the increasingly unlikely scenario where he does rejoin the team, is whether or not he’d be ready to contribute immediately.
“When he gets here, the level of overall conditioning and readiness, those are equations that we’ll weigh,” Tomlin said of Bell at the beginning of September.
Not coming back during the bye, cost Bell time to get reinvolved with the team. Plus, with Conner’s recent performances, the Steelers didn’t need Bell as much as they did a month ago.
His teammates — and coach — have little desire to talk about Bell right now.
“I don’t want to waste the energy,” Steelers guard David DeCastro told NFL.com after Week 9. “I have to block some of the best players on the best defense in the world. Do you think I’m going to worry about a guy who’s not here?”
How did Bell and the Steelers get to this point?
Bell was set to hit free agency in 2017 after playing out all four years of his rookie contract, but the Steelers have shown little interest in committing long-term salary to their top tailback. At least not with the numbers that Bell is looking to get.
Pittsburgh retained Bell via the franchise tag last spring, signing him to a one-year, $12.12 million deal that kept him in black and gold through the season — a deal that came months after the club locked fellow offensive standout Antonio Brown into a four-year, $68 million deal.
Bell wasn’t happy with his new short-term deal. He sat out the majority of training camp and the preseason, refusing to sign his franchise tender until Sept. 1. That gave him nine days to prepare for the team’s season opener in Cleveland — a game where he was held to just 32 yards on 10 carries.
While he’d eventually find his footing in an All-Pro campaign, his performance wasn’t enough to convince the Steelers to pony up for Bell’s asking price. Pittsburgh once again tagged him; this time for $14.54 million. And once again, Bell held out — this time, perhaps the entire season — in order to avoid injury in advance of finally hitting the free agent market in 2019.
For every game Bell sits out, it costs him a game check worth $853,000 each. But even though Bell will miss the entire year, he won’t be able to be retained at the same franchise tag price next season. It will cost the Steelers the average of the league’s top five salaries — an estimated $25-26 million — to franchise Bell again next spring.
Where do the Steelers go from here?
Pittsburgh has been insulating itself for Bell’s departure over the past 18 months, selecting Conner in the third round of last year’s draft.
Tomlin has praised Conner’s progress, saying he had gone “from a rookie that missed time due to soft-tissue injuries and lack of general readiness to a guy that’s done the things that we’ve outlined.”
Bell got exactly 10 times the carries Conner did last fall (320 to 32), but the then-rookie performed well in limited action, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
Conner has shown he can be the team’s workhorse of the future, but Bell would be a welcomed addition to a Steelers team that finds itself right back atop the AFC North.
If he shows up by Nov. 13, Bell will play under the tag for the second straight year. If not, he’ll miss the 2018 season and the Steelers could use the transition tag on him next season. If they choose not to, Bell will hit free agency in the spring.