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3 key questions in the aftermath of the Le’Veon Bell contract saga

Thanks to a longstaning contract dispute, aggrieved running back Le’Veon Bell has forfeited an entire season. What happens now?

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Le’Veon Bell did not report to the Steelers on Tuesday, thereby rendering himself ineligible for the remainder of the 2018 season and officially forfeiting every dime of the $14.5 million he’d have earned by signing the franchise tag back in September. The relationship between Bell and the Steelers, which was rooted in animus and contentiousness but underpinned by a mutual understanding that a “fair” offer for both sides was not a realistic thing, had turned sour after two years of stalled contract negotiations and social media gaslighting; if you thought Bell being absent was a distraction, imagine the dank haze of awkwardness that would’ve enveloped the locker room had Bell made his glorious return at the 11th hour.

Though Bell electing to remain absent was the anticipated result, it’s a significant one nonetheless; and, in light of its significance, I have three simple questions:

So...what now?

The Steelers and Bell will almost assuredly walk divergent paths this offseason, which is an outcome that’s seemed preordained since both parties failed to come to terms on a contract extension back in July. During his press conference Tuesday, Mike Tomlin spoke as if the Steelers never even bothered to game-plan for Bell’s eventual return—in fact, the way Tomlin tells it, Bell straight up ghosted him. (Ignoring calls and texts is a little tacky on Bell’s part, but he’s neither under contract with the Steelers nor is he on the active roster; the Steelers “own” Le’Veon Bell’s rights, which is what’s preventing him from, say, signing with another team tomorrow, so it isn’t as if he’s required to take work calls). Thus, if Bell did intend to return, Mike Tomlin might’ve been the last feller to hear about it.

In Bell’s stead, the Steelers have heavily featured James Conner, who, much like Bell, is an amorphous offensive workhorse, one whose capabilities as a receiver, blocker, and runner have transformed him into one of the NFL’s most valuable commodities. It takes a special kind of talent to seamlessly replace a Hall of Fame-caliber running back, but Conner has done just that, and in fact there’s a reasonable case to be made that Conner’s presence in the backfield has actually enhanced the potency of Pittsburgh’s offense. Conner is three years younger than Bell, his contract is dirt-cheap for the next two seasons, and he’s arguably the most beloved athlete in the city—even if he was only operating at, like, 60 percent of Bell’s capacity, proceeding with him as the feature back would’ve made sense. That he’s producing at an All-Pro caliber makes safeguarding his status as the franchise back a no-brainer.

Now, there exists the possibility that the Steelers could franchise-tag Bell for a third-consecutive season or place the transition tag on him. The former option absolutely will not happen, as the tag figure for 2019 would likely exceed the $14.5 million tag figure from 2018. The Steelers aren’t gonna want to cough up $19 million just to watch the exact same scenario unfold, ya know?

The transition tag is an intriguing option, as it would enable Bell to negotiate with other teams this offseason, but permit the Steelers to match any offer that Bell may receive. If you’re familiar with the NBA (I don’t know if hockey does this; maybe they do), the transition tag is kinda akin to the restricted free agency process. I can’t imagine this option will be in play, either, because A) teams like the Jets, Raiders, and Colts could destroy Pittsburgh in a bidding war, B) even if another suitor provided a low offer that the Steelers could reasonably match, it doesn’t make sense to relegate Conner to a back-up role, and C) the relationship between Bell and the Steelers very legitimately appears to be irreparable.

In my option, the most sensible thing the Steelers can do is allow Bell to hit unrestricted free agency this spring: it’ll provide both parties with a clean break and should allow the Steelers to net a mid-round compensatory pick.

Did Bell make the right decision?

I think that he did not, but that’s largely the result of me viewing this whole ordeal in retrospect. Bell’s decision to hold out was not an irrational one; he knew full well the Steelers intended to hand him another 350-400 touches (and they likely did, as evinced by Conner’s ample usage rate), and subsequently he decided that forfeiting $14.5 million for a clean bill of health was a fair trade. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a running back-needy team like the Raiders or Jets offers Bell a contract that includes, I don’t know, $40 million in guaranteed money. Thus, while Bell did surrender $14.5 million in order to acquire said contract, he still came out ahead. You gotta spend money to make money, etc.

It’s important to note, too, that Bell truly had nothing to gain by playing this season. Opposing coaches and general managers are already deeply familiar with Bell’s impressive multifaceted skillset and his pioneering running style, and tacking another full season on his odometer probably wasn’t gonna have any kind of positive impact on their opinions of Bell. If anything, it might’ve only lessened Bell’s value; Bell has most likely already reached his pinnacle, and hitting the open market with six full seasons under his belt at age 27, a year before running backs, as a position, tend to chart a course toward their inevitable declines, probably did not bode well for his earning potential. In this sense, I think sitting out was the right decision.

But what Bell probably didn’t foresee was Conner’s emergence as a similarly-effective utility knife. Much like Bell, Conner developed a reputation as a bruiser during his college days, but transmogrified into a reliable offensive presence who can do a little bit of everything once he reached the professional ranks. As someone who follows the Steelers closely, I had no expectations for James Conner. He would be a decent, albeit one-dimensional, two-down back, I thought. But, more than anything, I was terrified that Bell’s absence would have deleterious effects on the offense. I was obviously very much incorrect, because not only is James Conner “decent,” he is scoring touchdowns, catching passes, forcing defenders to miss tackles at an alarmingly proficient rate, running defenders over, stiff-arming defenders, picking up blitzes, and just generally exceeding in all of the things that made Le’Veon Bell such an incredible, ostensibly irreplaceable player.

Of course, the insidious aspect of Conner’s meteoric rise to superstardom is the evocation of the “system back” epithet. Could it be that Conner and Bell are both very talented, but are both products of an elite offensive system that features a top-notch offensive line, a stable of speedy receivers, and a Hall of Fame quarterback? Probably both statements are true, but you can believe that potential suitors are gonna latch on the “system” thing in an attempt to dampen Bell’s value. James Conner is Le’Veon Bell’s bane; I think Conner, by being so truly exceptional, cost Bell some money.

Should I, the discerning Steelers fan, harbor contempt towards Le’Veon Bell?

You should not, but that’s just my opinion. Bell has made it very clear that his core objective was to reformat the economics dictating what elite running backs should be paid. You can argue that every player in the NFL is a depreciating asset (the Patriots are well aware of this, which is why so often they’ll part ways with a player seemingly in his prime, only to see him reach his career nadir a year or two later—relatedly, this is why the Patriots are always so friggin’ unstoppable) but this seems to be especially true for running backs, who are asked to handle the ball more times than everyone except for the center and the quarterback and are tackled more than anyone. And I actually kind of like Bell’s famous argument about being paid like a top-tier running back and a top-tier secondary receiver; if there’s a position group in the NFL that could make the “positionless” argument, it’s the running backs (As a brief aside that runs counter to the aforementioned argument, what Bell fails to recognize is that most football players are asked to do multiple things. Receivers block, and fullbacks occasionally catch passes. Just last week, Eric Ebron, a tight end for the Colts, scored a rushing touchdown. Defensive backs are sometimes asked to blitz, just as linebackers are sometimes asked to drop into coverage. Some defensive tackles anchor the offensive line during punts and field goals.)

I know that a lot of people think that professional athletes (and millennials) are spoiled, inherently entitled folks and that, by enacting a season-long holdout, Bell is demonstrative of that axiom, but I think it’s kind of laudable that Bell essentially gambled on himself. It’s a decision that could backfire in tangible ways in March (and beyond), but there is power in demanding what you think you’re worth and refusing to settle for anything less. Le’Veon Bell believes that he should be the highest-paid running back in NFL history and that his contract should be laden with guarantees; the Steelers, meanwhile, agree that Bell should be highly paid, but are understandably not thrilled about the prospect of fronting a running back $40 million (or whatever). Bell’s unwillingness to settle is fair, as is the Steelers’ unwillingness to meet his demands.

On the other hand, however, Bell’s attitude in the months following the stalled contract talks in July—mostly notably, the cryptic social media activity, which included the promise that 2018 would be his “best year yet”—have been irritating and vexing and have seemingly aroused an anger within the fanbase that’s been unseen since Mike Wallace skipped town, which is to say that, if he returns to Pittsburgh in the near future as a member of another team, the Steelers probably won’t have a special welcome or a nice compilation video waiting for him. This is also fair.

Personally, I am going to miss Le’Veon Bell. He was a stellar running back who helped the Steelers rebound from a pair of 8-8 seasons to become one of the NFL’s most exciting offensive powerhouses. Bell, one of the titular components of the Killer Bs, did not win a Super Bowl ring in Pittsburgh, but I wish him all the best elsewhere. May he get his bag, then his ring, if he so wishes.