The Pittsburgh Steelers will begin their 2018 regular season Sunday with a road game against the Cleveland Browns. It’s probably safe to assume Le’Veon Bell won’t be in the backfield. The two-time All-Pro running back still hasn’t ended a holdout, and it now seems a foregone conclusion that it’ll stretch into the season.
With Bell opting not to show up Wednesday, a few of his teammates had enough. Offensive linemen Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey had plenty to say about Bell’s decision to sit out.
Why Bell is still sitting out
A year ago, Bell was in a similar situation. After the Steelers used the franchise tag on the running back and the two sides couldn’t come to terms on a long-term deal, Bell skipped all of training camp and preseason. He reported to the facility and signed his franchise tender on Sept. 1 — nine days before the team kicked off the 2017 season against the Browns.
The 2018 offseason went the same way for Bell. He was franchised, didn’t agree to a long-term deal with the Steelers, and skipped all of training camp and preseason. The big difference is that this year is definitely his last in Pittsburgh.
It’d be unrealistic to franchise Bell a third time and pay him $17.45 million in 2019. After unsuccessful attempts to lock up Bell, which weren’t as close or fair as the Steelers tried to make it seem, he’ll be a prized free agent next March.
So Bell has good reason to sit out this time around.
Last year, he showed up and said “I want as many carries as I need to get for us to win games.” This time around he’s thinking twice about that.
The Steelers have zero reason to worry about Bell’s future now. He had a league-leading 406 touches in 2017, but Pittsburgh could push that number closer to 500 this time around. Why not? If they burn the tread off the tires, it only means Bell won’t be as dangerous if he’s an opponent in the future.
That was the reason Bell’s agent Adisa Bakari cited that the holdout is still happening.
“You’re Kevin Colbert, you’re Mike Tomlin, and you possibly have a once in a generation player for one more season, what would your plan be?”
Bakari later said “[Bell’s] intention is to make this the best statistical season of his career.”
Bell has every reason to be concerned that the Steelers will overuse him in 2018 and he’s playing a delicate balancing act to try to maximize his value next March.
But Steelers offensive linemen are clearly pissed
After practice Wednesday, most Steelers were predictably asked about the absence of Bell. Many expected the running back to end his holdout in time to practice for the season opener, but instead he was a no show. A few players seemed particularly frustrated by the fact that Bell proved their predictions of his return wrong.
Steelers All-Pro G David DeCastro on Bell absence: “I think we’re all disappointed. What’s the expression? We’re stuck with our foot in our mouth. We all thought he’dbe here.”— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) September 5, 2018
A few of the team’s stars like Ben Roethlisberger and Cameron Heyward answered diplomatically when asked about Bell. But offensive linemen Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, and David DeCastro didn’t hold back.
Steelers teammates not happy with Le’Veon Bell no show, led by vet G Ramon Foster, their player rep:— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) September 5, 2018
“What do you do? here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn, I guess so we’ll treatit as such. I just hate it came to this. “
More Ramon Foster on Bell: “He’s making 7 times what I make twice as much as Al (Villanueva) is making and we’re the guys who do it for him.”— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) September 5, 2018
Ramon Foster on Bell turning down nearly $1M a week to not be here: "In the ultimate team sport we’ve created a league of individuals."— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) September 5, 2018
Ramon Foster with a big knock on Bell: "My mom died, I went to the funeral and came to camp the next day... Al (Villanueva) has seen people die and has come and given his all to this team."— Josh Rowntree (@JRown32) September 5, 2018
He adds, "It's a little bit tiresome now. I'm tired of the antics." #Steelers @937theFan
Maurkice Pouncey on Le’Veon Bell’s agent suggesting he’d like to know #Steelers plan for the RB this year: “That’s just stupid. You can’t play football like that.”— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 5, 2018
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
DeCastro on Bell -- "Just sit out the whole year then."— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly) September 5, 2018
Foster even went to Twitter himself earlier in the day with a post that showed Bell dressed like Waldo.
It’s a surprisingly hardline stance against a teammate that you rarely see in the NFL. The frustration isn’t difficult to explain — the Steelers finished training camp and preseason and are gearing up for a run at the Super Bowl, but one player is doing what he can to secure the most money possible.
The team has no choice but to rally around James Conner, a second-year running back who is drawing rave reviews for his work ethic, determination, and growth.
But many of the answers of Pouncey and Foster highlighted Bell’s contract dispute as an issue, and that’s not very smart.
Why the Steelers’ criticism of Bell is counterproductive
It’s understandable why offensive linemen, the unheralded bulldozers for a running back, would be frustrated by the situation. But it’s surprising that Pouncey and Foster were the two who shredded Bell the most considering they are two of the Steelers’ three representatives for the NFL Players Association.
The NFLPA is just a few years away from a labor fight with the NFL when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2020 season. It makes no sense for two NFLPA reps to back management instead of a player in a contract dispute.
The franchise tag is an oft-criticized tool that teams can use to keep a player from getting any kind of long-term security or netting their worth on the free agency market. It’d make much more sense for Foster and Pouncey to be critical of the Steelers for using the tag twice and doing their best not to give Bell the contract that another team would undoubtedly jump to pay if the running back became free agent.
The NFLPA’s goal, like all unions, is to help players get as much as they can with the best possible work conditions.
So why are Foster and Pouncey complaining about his “tiresome” and “stupid” antics instead of ripping Pittsburgh for offering Bell a deal that offered just $10 million in guarantees? What would they have said if Bell was released by the Steelers just two seasons into a five-year contract?
Solidarity isn’t just a nice idea for teammates working together to win football games. It’s going to be crucial when the NFLPA and NFL head into a contentious labor dispute. Players will need to present a unified front if they hope to do better in CBA negotiations than they did in 2011. Foster and Pouncey aren’t helping their cause.