As I said a time or two when he was missing OTAs, mini-camp and training camp, I’ll upgrade my official stance to “outraged” if Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell allows his ongoing financial squabble with his employers to carry over into the regular season.
Like last year, I and everyone else who roots for or plays for the Steelers — including his teammates and bosses — just assumed Bell would report this week, sign his $14.5 million franchise tag, begin preparing for the first game against the Browns this Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, and we’d be on our way to enjoying Black-and-gold football at its very best in 2018.
But how can the Steelers be at their very best in 2018 when perhaps their most vital offensive cog — certainly the cog that this offense is built around — is at home preserving his body for the 2019 free-agent market?
As per his agent, Bell, who didn’t report to the Steelers’ practice facilities on Wednesday, could, if the agent’s implications are to be believed, miss the maximum amount of time before reporting — 10 weeks.
Consider my stance officially upgraded to “outraged.”
As I’ve said before, I get Bell’s point of view in all of this. I think the franchise tag, while setting a top free-agent up with a hefty sum of guaranteed money on a one-year deal, also prevents a player from maximizing his earnings on a multi-year deal during the height of his career.
I also understand that Bell is well within his rights to sit out until the very end, since it was a concession made by the owners to the players as a means to keep the franchise tag in play. I’m also sympathetic to the fact that Bell has to think about his own career and that the Steelers (like any other team that utilizes the franchise tag) are just as complicit in this saga. How? First, by franchising Bell for a second year in a row. And secondly, by low-balling him with regards to the guaranteed money that was reportedly part of the final offer right before the deadline expired to reach a long-term deal in July.
OK, so why have I now turned on Bell?
Because, darn it, once the deadline came and went in July, both sides knew where they stood: Bell was to play-out the 2018 season while earning $14.5 million in guaranteed money in the process. After that, he would hit the open market in search of a lucrative contract.
We’d get one more year of excellence out of Bell and, hopefully, the curtain on the 2018 season would close with he and the Steelers hoisting a Lombardi trophy.
But by sitting out to preserve his body for 2019, Bell is essentially saying he really cares more about his own career than he does the Steelers and winning a championship. I understand reality and that most players probably view playing football as a job, one in-which they aim to make as much money as possible (it’s the American way). That’s all well and good when a player is looking out for himself in the context of performing well as a member of the team; but when a player looks out for himself by not showing up for real games with real consequences — to quote WWE’s Mr. McMahon many years ago when HHH tried to fire Mankind while Mr. McMahon was away — “That’s damn sure bad for business!”
I’ve said many times that football players owe me nothing before and after the whistle is blown (within reason, of course). However, in between those whistles, that’s where I expect real business to be conducted, and real results to be had.
By staying away, Bell has effectively downgraded the Steelers from a bona fide Super Bowl-contender this year to a team that could be fighting tooth and nail just to make the playoffs.
You know how I’m in favor of a player’s right to do that unspoken and controversial thing on the sidelines before a game is played? My tune would be much different if a player decided to do that unspoken and controversial thing at the 50-yard line in the middle of a game instead of tackling a wide receiver who had just caught a slant pass.
In other words, Bell has just impinged on “between the whistles” territory, and I’m offended by his insensitive actions.
And what about his coaches and teammates?
We, as fans, are kind of ridiculous when talking about distractions. But this isn’t a rap song in April. This isn’t arriving to training camp via helicopter in July.
Randy Fichtner, the new offensive coordinator, has to prepare for Cleveland (and many more opponents, it seems) without one of his most important players. Ben Roethlisberger has to prepare without the guy he often relies on to pick up blitzes. He has to prepare without the talented back who’s always right there waiting for a dump-off pass, when the former is under pressure and out of options.
The new offensive coordinator and his veteran quarterback are going to have to prepare the second-year running back, James Conner, for the Browns and hope he’s up to the task of getting the lion’s share of carries. Also, the hope is that Conner’s well-versed in those important nuances Bell specialized in, like picking up blitzes and being a reliable safety valve out of the backfield.
You want to know what a true football distraction is? Le’Veon Bell now has become the very definition of a football distraction.
Le’Veon, I think I was one of the few people still on your side.
You’ve gone and hurt the Steelers’ chances of winning a championship in 2018, and now you have one less person in your shrinking corner.