Let’s use some basic game theory principles to deconstruct the failed contract negotiations between Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, by definition, is a model that seeks to explain why two otherwise rational entities would fail to act in a rational manner.
Of course, rationality is subjective in NFL contract negotiations, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume the Prisoner’s payoff matrix for Bell and the Steelers was as follows:
- Bell and the Steelers reach a compromise and come to terms on a fair agreement (representing the “ideal” scenario for both sides)
- Bell demands too much, tilting the benefits of a long-term deal in his favor (and vice versa for the Steelers)
- Bell and the Steelers do nothing (putting their long-term relationship in immediate doubt)
Bell and the Steelers, as we now know, elected to do nothing. (This is true, by the way. They essentially agreed to disagree). And in retrospect, it seems pretty evident that Bell and the Steelers appeared to be on a crash course toward nihility all along. Consider the following:
- According to Tom Pelissero, the Steelers offered Bell a five-year contract with an AAV of approximately $12 million. Per Pelissero’s report, however, the Steelers front-loaded their offer (so it would’ve paid Bell $30 million in the first two years, $42 million in the first three). This is purely speculative, but it stands to reason that Bell either a) wanted more guaranteed money (duh) or b) wanted more financial security down the road.
- In this way, not signing this deal makes some sense for Bell. Playing under the franchise tag will pay him just over $12 million in guaranteed money in 2017. By rejecting the Steelers’ offer, Bell can either become an unrestricted free agent in March and receive almost any contract he wants, or he can wait for the Steelers to franchise tag him again and earn another fully-guaranteed contract in the neighborhood of $12-14 million. In other words, he could make considerably more guaranteed money over the next two seasons than he would have made over the life of Pittsburgh’s proposal.
- The issue is that Pittsburgh’s offer makes perfect sense for them. On the surface, their offer to Bell was more than generous—massive, in fact. However, if Ian Rapoport is to believed (and he usually is), most of the guaranteed money in Pittsburgh’s proposed contract came very early in the deal. When considering that Bell has dealt with several major injuries, the Steelers made the correct business decision.
What all of this means, then, is that Bell has free rein to dictate how the remainder of his summer will work out.
Since Bell has not signed his franchise tender, he is not subject to the fines that usually come along as a result of missing training camp and preseason games. Being that Bell was most likely seeking financial guarantees as an injury fallback in the first place, it makes little sense for him to attend training camp or participate in any preseason games. Bell is in no danger of ceding his starting position, and his contract is fully-guaranteed as long as he signs before the first game. Skipping these sessions probably won’t sit well with some of his teammates, but it won’t cause any internal rifts in the locker room. The only demographic who seems likely to freak out about Bell’s camp absence is the fanbase.
Camaraderie notwithstanding, what does Bell stand to gain by attending camp or playing in preseason games? That’s an honest question. Is training camp really going to have any tangible impact on his abilities? Does he really need to achieve greater continuity with his offensive line (the same one that he’s been running behind for the past two seasons)? Will the 15 snaps he receives in the preseason really get him ready for the rigors of the regular season? Veterans almost unanimously hate the preseason, anyway, and given the chance, many players would probably skip training camp, too.
Bell should not be faulted for wanting to safeguard his health, even if it means “letting down” whomever he is letting down by failing to report to camp. NFL players, especially running backs, have extremely limited shelf lives. Bell should do everything in his power to get what he thinks he is worth.
This isn’t to say that Bell is going to “play harder” in 2017 because he wants to make more money. He won’t because a) saying he will “play harder” implies that he wasn’t already playing his hardest (say what you will about Le’Veon Bell, but his effort is one attribute that has never been called into question) and b) the “contract year phenomenon” has been scientifically invalidated. With that said, Bell will play for the Steelers in 2017. He averaged over 150 all-purpose yards per game in a 12-game 2016 season, and there is no reason to believe that this pace is unsustainable. Bell may deviate slightly from this baseline, but there is a legitimate possibility that he breaks the single-season all-purpose yardage record without playing a single special teams snap.
Make no mistake, Bell is taking a considerable risk by betting on himself. If he plays well enough to demand a contract with a $14 million AAV, the Steelers might as well tag him for $14 million again next offseason. That would put Bell at age 27 by the time he truly reaches free agency. If long-term financial security is what he seeks at that point, he may find himself out of luck.
In the present time, Bell is exerting what little bit of leverage he actually has by controlling his own professional destiny. If nothing else, he is serving as test sample for the likes of Devonta Freeman, Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson, all of whom are in line for massive paydays down the road. Bell is working to rewrite the economics of running back negotiations, and for that he should be commended.
For now, we can just hope that all parties figures everything out.