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Steelers fans will miss Le'Veon Bell more than they realize

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Think the Steelers can easily pick up the pieces after the likely departure of Le'Veon Bell next offseason? Not so fast.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, I know — another Le’Veon Bell article (sigh). But what can I say? It’s hard to not talk about a running back who’s averaged 129 all-purpose yards from scrimmage per game during his career.

It’s especially hard not to write about Bell, given his current contract situation and the fact that he likely won’t be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers beyond this season. I get that $15 million a year might be a little too much to pay a running back, but I don’t get why people are so confident that Bell will be easily replaced next season and beyond.

Sure, $15 million is a lot, but many people will surely agree Bell is worth at least $10 or $11 million per year — which means he’s a running back of great value, especially to a Steelers’ offense that’s made him its centerpiece ever since Mike Tomlin practically hand-picked him in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Believe it or not, I’ve been occasionally annoyed by Bell during the course of his career. For example, when he was originally drafted. Given my propensity for making fun of my fellow Pittsburghers and their love of the ground game, I mocked the selection of Bell and felt a second-round pick could have been used to strengthen another position. During the course of Bell’s rookie season, I criticized Tomlin for coddling him and praising him when I didn’t think either response was warranted for a young back who, at that point, had proven nothing.

I was very much upset with Bell two years ago when he essentially lied about a rumored second suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. I even wrote a spoof article in the summer of 2016, shortly after Bell accidentally incriminated himself by going on social media and saying he hadn’t partaken in the smoking of pot since December of 2014 — a time-frame that theoretically should have subjected him to an even bigger suspension than the two games he received at the start of the following season.

I still don’t like the fact that Bell has missed a total of five games for issues involving marijuana — even if the 3-game suspension he received at the start of the 2016 campaign was due to missed tests.

But other than an NFL-banned recreational drug he supposedly hasn’t dabbled in for the past four years, plus a few minor annoyances, what really is there to dislike about Bell? His teammates certainly seem to love him, and I already alluded to the fondness his head coach has for him.

Regardless of the fondness you or I might or might not have for Bell, we share a mutual love for the Steelers. And Bell has certainly shown how valuable he’s been during the course of his career. Take 2014, for example, when he was such a huge part of the offense during the regular season, the Black-and-gold simply looked naked in the playoffs when they had to face the Ravens minus an injured Bell.

I realize the offense was super productive the following year, while Bell missed a total of 10 games due to his first suspension plus a season-ending MCL tear. But that’s likely because backup running backs of DeAngelo Williams’ caliber don’t exactly grow on trees (Williams arrived in Pittsburgh as a free agent that offseason, bringing along a resume including more than 6,800 career rushing yards).

And running backs the caliber of Le’Veon Bell certainly don’t grow on trees either.

BTSC reader and frequent poster DMAppDev wrote a piece recently which details why Bell is not a transcendent player. It’s a really great read and brings up a lot of interesting points. The article lists a plethora of running backs who were more productive than Bell was over the first five years of his career. But if you look at that list, it’s basically a Who’s Who of NFL running backs — and Bell is right there among them.

The point isn’t about Bell’s all-time status as compared to some of the all-time greats (obviously, an agent is going to build up their client higher than he probably deserves to be). The point is Bell’s status as it relates to the Steelers and the current NFL.

And whether we want to admit it or not, some team in the future NFL (e.g. 2019) is likely going to land a running back who one day will be on a list that’s similarly used to slight another young, hot-shot free agent trying to get paid.

If you notice that list, Frank Pollard isn’t on it; Walter Abercrombie isn’t on it; Earnest Jackson isn’t on it; Merril Hoge isn’t on it; Willie Parker isn’t on it; and Rashard Mendenhall isn’t on it.

And all of those players were starters at some point.

When you start discussing the running back-by-committee approach, then you get into Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman territory.

This is why I don’t understand the huge leap of faith required for someone to say: “$10 million a year for Bell? I can see that, but $15 million? Forget it — let’s just add a few unknowns to the running back depth chart and see what happens.”

Sure, the running back-by-committee approach can and has worked, and those instances have been cited many times (I’m sure they’ll be cited a time or 10 in the comments section below). But why is a platoon approach utilized in any sport? Because the position doesn’t have an A-list star to do all or most of the heavy lifting.

The Steelers currently have a running back who can do all of the heavy lifting, so much lifting he has driven other running backs out of town due to their lack of playing time.

I realize people are angry at Bell for missing training camp for a second-straight summer. I realize some might not appreciate his off-the-field shenanigans these days, mostly involving social media or making really horrible-sounding rap music.

I realize you might want to see Bell punished with a heavy dose of extra duty in 2018, which, when you really think about the kind of back he is, is like someone in the 1980s saying they wanted to see Michael Jackson perform for three-straight hours as a punishment for him rather than as entertainment for them.

Bell’s huge workload is essentially the very identity of Pittsburgh’s attack, and his absence will likely force a philosophical shift on the offense next season.

Are the Steelers making the right decision by not giving Bell the moon? That remains to be seen. Will the Steelers offense be better off without him? That’s highly unlikely.

As it pertains to this second part, and the inevitability of Bell's departure in 2019, to quote Jerry in the episode of Seinfeld where his friend Kramer is mocking him over a failing stock:

”There’s one thing I don’t understand — why does it please you?”