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The situation between Le’Veon Bell and his Steelers teammates is more complicated than it seems

Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz explains why it’s a unique ordeal that can’t be boiled down to simple conclusions on Twitter.

New Orleans Saints v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Steelers offensive linemen, and more importantly, the veteran leadership of that group, took the highly unusual step of publicly calling out their teammate, running back Le’Veon Bell, for not being at the facility yet. Twitter went into a frenzy and used this to question whether or not players were a unified group, as in bargaining group, and to point out that teammates should not discuss another player’s contract negotiations.

The truth is — it’s complicated.

Bell and Steelers have spent two seasons trying to get a deal finalized, and they haven’t been close. He wants to be paid as a hybrid running back and wide receiver, something the Steelers aren’t willing to consider. Since they couldn’t reach a deal, the Steelers slapped the franchise tag on Bell for the second consecutive season. When he signs the tag, he then fully guarantees a one-year contract for $14.5 million.

Do I think franchise tags are fair? Of course not. That’s an issue for the leadership of the NFLPA to figure out in 2021 in the next round of CBA negotiations. But this is where Bell’s at now.

The plan, or so it seemed, was the same as last season. Bell would miss the offseason program and most of camp, but be back for Week 1 to help his team win. Until Wednesday, his offensive line teammates had been publicly supportive of his endeavor to use whatever leverage he had to get paid what he felt he was worth. That support seems to have waned quickly when Bell didn’t show up yesterday for practice.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an offensive line, a group that’s normally muted in public, call out a teammate for not being there. Generally speaking, players are supportive of fellow players’ contract situations until they determine said player is being unrealistic. So something changed in just a few days for the Steelers lineman to go public with their unhappiness over Bell’s absence. Bell said publicly — and my guess is he told them privately too — that he’d be there. He’s not. And they feel betrayed.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people, including former players, chastised the Steelers offensive line for not being supportive of Bell’s contract negotiations and for speaking about someone else’s money. But that’s not exactly what they did.

Per rules of the franchise tag, if a new deal isn’t reach by July 15, the player has to play that season under the tag (unless he sits out, which has its own set of consequences). End of story. There’s NO more negotiation over a long-term deal, unless the Steelers rescind the tag, which would make Bell an unrestricted free agent. That’s not happening. So no matter what you want to scream on social media, Bell isn’t getting a new deal like Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack or Odell Beckham Jr. If Bell chooses to play this season, he’s making $14.5 million.

Presumably Bell is holding out, which really isn’t a holdout because there’s nothing to negotiate over now, to preserve his body for next season, when he will be a free agent and can hit the market for a big deal. The only risk of Bell skipping any of the regular season is James Conner, who will start in Bell’s place, playing well causing people around the league to question Bell’s worth.

For the record, I support Bell’s cause. I hope every player makes as much money as they can. I’ve always been that way and nothing has changed. However, I do understand where the Steelers offensive linemen are coming from.

If you’re asking, or expected the Steelers offensive line to publicly support Bell’s absence from the team, you’re essentially asking them to support Bell’s absence so he can be healthy for another team in 2019. That’s unrealistic to expect any teammate to support that.

This situation is so unique to the NFL because it’s such a year-to-year league. This could be the opportunity for the Steelers to win the Super Bowl. They see New England dealing with talent deficiencies and a wide open AFC. They want to win NOW and Bell helps them do that. I understand the frustration.

I think there’s a valid argument to be made that the Steelers offensive lineman should have kept this private and not made this a public issue.

The comment by Ramon Foster about his salary versus Bell’s salary was a tad distasteful and it leads to a bigger discussion about running back value. Running backs have been generally undervalued in the NFL. Until Todd Gurley got paid, their salaries were lagging behind their production on the field. As much as Bell and others want him to be paid for his production level, the market dictates what that worth is.

It’s an issue that’s not limited to running back either. Right tackles are blocking tougher defenders than left tackles but get paid far less. Tight ends can be de facto wide receivers but get a much smaller salary than the guys lining up out wide. So if there’s going to be a shift in paying the player not the position, let’s make it happen. Make it rain for everyone.

The question has been posed: “Should the players direct their anger at ownership for not paying Bell what he wants?” That’s an option, but it ends with management being potentially upset at the players. And without guaranteed contracts in the sport, it’s a tough spot for players. It’s also a reminder of how much leverage owners have over players, something I hope players can fix in CBA negotiations. For that to happen, it will take the players being unified, striking, and willing to miss games to get a better deal.

For now, remember that the situation with Bell and his Steelers teammates is a unique, one that requires nuance and deeper thought than a couple tweets.