The Steelers' front office should have taken pause to revel in the moment.
Midway through the fourth quarter of the team's sluggish but hard-fought comeback over the Tennessee Titans, they could see the work put in over the last two years beginning to show a return on their investment. They gave a rookie running back the keys to their offense, and Le'Veon Bell was beginning to take over the game, one carry at a time. The high draft picks spent on the offensive line, the gamble taken on Heath Miller's full recovery and the willingness to believe in the statistically proven value of running the ball late.
One of the incorrect moves in that time was about to show up. With each dominating trap play the Steelers ran, the frustration of 2014 free agent signee LeGarrette Blount teetered on the boiling point. Rumors cropped up that he shoved offensive coordinator Todd Haley after an opposing player ran toward them out of bounds. With nothing else getting the team's attention, Blount took his considerably inflated balls and went home. Or to the locker room, with the intention of going home, back to New England.
The Patriots would sign him to a two-year deal but only after he cleared waivers, meaning the contract he signed with the Steelers in the offseason - the one higher than what New England was willing to pay for their 2013 playoff hero - was voided. Blount possibly had the option of taking a one-time payment upon termination of his contract, but he may have already done that in his career, what, with so many other previous releases.
Off walked Blount to the Land of Deflated Balls, and off went the depth of the Steelers' burgeoning running game. The team would make the decision leading into their bye week to bring Josh Harris, an undrafted rookie out of Wake Forest, up from the practice squad, and essentially do everything they wanted Blount to do, up to and including standing on the sideline and not shoving the offensive coordinator into harm's way.
Bell was the man. Bell showed he was the man against the Titans. And the Bengals in Week 14. And lots of other teams who fell to the Steelers in 2014. But even the man needs a sidekick. No more of this "LeBackfield" stuff, either. No more arrests in Ross Township, no more training camp brawls with Vince Williams, they need a running back who will come in and, pardon the pun, do his job.
Steelers president Art Rooney II said as much in his address to the media Wednesday. According to Scott Brown of ESPN, "Obviously we don't want to have those kind things happen in the middle of the season but it is what it is and I think we made the decision (to release Blount) for the right reasons," Rooney said. "Not going to worry about it too much. We just have to make sure that we make a better decision this year and fill that position with someone we're comfortable with and who will be a good fit."
The reasons to release Blount were pretty obvious. The reasons for signing him in the first place are what's under scrutiny. It seems fair to deduce a conversation regarding playing time was made with Blount and/or his representation when he was a free agent asking for more money than the Patriots were willing to pay. The Steelers gave their prized rookie running back essentially all of the carries over the 13 games he played last season. Blount had to have wondered at what point will LeBackfield be at the top of the marquee, as opposed to The Le'Veon Bell Show with LeGarrette Blount.
This is only important for Rooney and the Steelers because, just as he said it, they face the exact same issue in 2015. It would seem the team would be far more interested in drafting a running back to compete with Harris to help Bell warm up before games, getting carries only in blowout situations or equipment malfunctions. But the Steelers have signed veteran running backs in each of the past two seasons - LaRod Stephens-Howling in 2013 and Blount last year. Make no mistake, they will not give a second look to Ben Tate, the running back they signed to lug the rock against Baltimore in the playoffs, who had a morale-killing fumble (sensationally recovered by Antonio Brown) and a dropped pass that was intercepted by Terrell Suggs' groin.
As Rooney said it, they'll have to be smart in finding that back-up. Perhaps Blount wasn't the best decision, but getting Bell insured against the grind of what looks to be a successful offensive 2015 season has to be a priority. It's a decision they simply can't afford to get wrong again.