Le’Veon Bell, who returned to the Steelers on Friday and signed his one-year franchise tender on Monday, has had quite an eventful off-season. He released a rap album. He facilitated what could ultimately become a very fortuitous business relationship with Dairy Queen, of all places (for real, Bell probably has not consumed ice cream or burgers since his junior year of college). He (reportedly) turned down a five-year contract that would have made him by far the richest running back in the NFL, and the second-richest ever. In the same vein, he skipped training camp, drawing the ire of approximately 75 percent of the fan base, 90 percent of the local media and 100 percent of Pittsburgh’s coaching staff.
All of this—the pseudo rap beefs, the snide, albeit mostly jovial comments from teammates, the voluminous catalog of derogatory Twitter replies—will be nothing but a distant memory when the season starts and Bell amasses 700 or 800 all-purpose yards against Cleveland in Week 1 (it’s also possible that Mike Tomlin will park Bell on the bench for the duration of Pittsburgh’s first game, but I digress).
Nonetheless, we’ve learned a lot during Bell’s “holdout” and even more during his cursory interview with the local media. Here are four things that stuck out:
Lesson 1: Bell is very PR savvy
Given the circumstances surrounding Bell’s camp absence—namely, the fact that the Steelers reportedly had a deal on the table that Bell rejected—the barrage of questions that he received concerning his general conditioning and his comfort level with the organization were anything but unexpected. And to Bell’s credit, he handled some tough questions in stride, routinely directing the reporter’s line of questioning back to his own desire to compete for a Super Bowl. Masterful stuff.
Lesson 2: Bell did not commit to returning to the Steelers in 2018
In a similar display of scripted ambiguity, Bell said that he would “worry about next year, next year” when he was asked if he plans on playing for the Steelers beyond 2017. Again, a pretty heads up answer from a dude who has clearly been versing himself in the baseline principles of public relations.
What Bell did not say, however, was “I hope we figure something out next year” or “I want to figure something out next year.” Unfortunately for Bell, the Steelers still have some leverage in 2018, as they have the ability to tag him for yet another season (and if Bell’s $15ish million contract requirements are accurate, the Steelers would be dumb not to tag him, as the one-year tag total will probably be in the $14 million ballpark).
Lesson 3: Despite this, he is confident that everything will work itself out
Bell said his situation “will work itself out” or some derivative of this phrase roughly a dozen times over the course of a 10-minute interview, which is a hallmark of a man who is already 1,000 percent done with dealing with the media.
There is veracity to this claim, though. Bell outpaced nearly every running back in the NFL in an abbreviated 2016 season, becoming the first player ever to average more than 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards per game. A similar performance will be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate, but even if Bell deviates slightly from his 2016 baseline, he will still post All-Pro numbers.
The major hindrance in Bell’s contract negotiations, apparently, was the fact that he wanted a salary commensurate with his skill set; that of a top-flight running back and a viable no. 2 receiver. A lofty demand, certainly, but far from unreasonable—Bell is, after all, the second-most prolific receiver on the Steelers since joining the team in 2013 and occupies an uppermost position among the league’s top runners.
It’s worth mentioning that Bell somewhat indirectly confirmed his contract demands. A reporter asked Bell if he thought he should be paid differently because he is a “different kind” of player; Bell answered by stating that he is “confident in everything” he can do on the field and that he “does a lot of things to help [the Steelers] win games.”
Lesson 4: Bell acknowledges that differences between “in shape” and “in football shape,” but...
...he isn’t too concerned about his level of conditioning. Bell has not participated in any team activities since the AFC Championship Game, yes, but it isn’t as if he has spent his off-season playing Madden and eating pizza. I’d contend, in fact, that if any professional athlete understands the importance of off-season training, it’s Le’Veon Bell. I would further contend that, if not for James Harrison, the rigor of Bell’s workouts would be the stuff of legend.
To Bell, the only aspect of professional football that cannot be simulated is the pace at which the game is played. According to Bell, he spent most of his first practice “reacting” to various game scenarios, which, if you have any cognizance of Bell’s skill set, isn’t among his many proclivities.
Being that the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh’s Week 1 opponent, didn’t make a large number of major improvements to a run defense that ranked 31st in the NFL last season, it shouldn’t take long for Bell to reacquaint himself with his unparalleled running style.