A crucial thing to know about Le’Veon Bell, if you ask one of his mentors, is that he is an excellent chess player. Bell took up the game as a third-grader and still plays frequently. He employs a patient strategy, holding back action pieces and waiting for his opponent to make the first mistake. It is not dissimilar to his running style, which makes him a singular NFL force when he plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bell, of course, is not playing at present. He refused to sign the Steelers’ franchise tag tender worth $14.5 million and is still holding out for a long-term deal he feels compensates him commensurate with his unique ability and massive production. Bell does not want to incur the damage of a full season’s workload without a long-term contract. Bell has lost $855,000 per week by not showing up, which means he has forfeited $6.8 million so far.
Tuesday afternoon clarified one aspect of Bell’s situation. As the trade deadline passed at 4 p.m., Bell still had not reported to the Steelers, which means if he plays at all this year, it will be for Pittsburgh. Another question is harder to answer: Why has Bell left nearly $7 million and counting on the table?
Bell believes the Steelers have undervalued him, and he does not want to put his body at risk as potential free agency beckons. But a lot of players believe they’re underpaid and don’t want to get hurt, and they do not resort to the lengths Bell has. So what makes Bell able and willing to make an extreme stand?
Donis Toler Jr. does not necessarily agree with Bell’s decision, but he can understand and explain it as well as anyone. “I love that kid like a son,” Toler said. Toler was the principal at Groveport Madison High in Ohio, where he was a mentor to Bell, an unheralded high school star who received only one Power Five scholarship offer. To Toler, Bell’s holdout derives from a combination of strategy and stubbornness.
“This is just like playing chess,” Toler said. “He’ll put stuff out there, and he’ll say stuff, knowing it will be far-reaching just to get a reaction on people. Most of the time, they believe it 99 percent of the time. And that’s not really him. All he wants to do is play ball, but this is just like chess to him: ‘Let me get the highest value I can for my services.’ ”
For Bell’s holdout to work from a financial perspective, he would have to recoup the money he lost holding out in his next contract, a long-term deal either from the Steelers or another team. He must report to the Steelers by Nov. 13, the Tuesday following Week 10, to be eligible to play this season and prevent the Steelers from using the franchise tag on him at the same price again next year. If Bell reports then, he’d have foregone $8.55 million. Bell, essentially, is placing his faith he can make that money back on his next contract.
Toler recalled an example from high school to illustrate Bell’s ability to place faith in an outcome. Early in his senior year, Toler showed him the academic benchmarks for him to graduate a semester early and enroll at a Power Five school in January. Bell changed his habits in order to reach them, even though he had yet to be offered a scholarship. When Michigan State offered one at the 11th hour, Bell committed, then enrolled early.
Self-preservation partly motivated Bell’s holdout. He ran or caught the ball 406 times last season, 60 touches more than anyone else in the NFL. “I want to play. I want to win games and the playoffs. But I’ve got to take this stand,” Bell told ESPN early in October. “Knowing my worth and knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches.”
But driving that, Toler said, is pride. Once Bell threatened to hold out, Toler knew he would – he’s always known Bell to stick to his word. Bell would sometimes do the opposite of what somebody told him, Toler recalled, just to show he controlled the situation. Bell decided the Steelers should regard him not as just a running back, but as a hybrid running and receiving threat. Once that was in his mind, he was not budging.
“He just believes he should be paid accordingly,” Toler said. “When you’re a running back and you should be paid as a No. 1 running back and a No. 2 wide receiver, you set the market yourself, and there’s no past market.
“His pride is a little bit hurt. When you’re negotiating, no matter if you’re a CEO of a business or playing a major league sport, there’s the business side and the personality side. Unfortunately, sometimes the two can’t blend. From a personal standpoint, do I think he wants to be with Pittsburgh long term? Absolutely. He’s stuck on this number. Whether it’s 17 [million] or 14.5, it comes down to pride. It comes down to him believing, ‘This is what I’m worth.’ … Right now, he just feels he deserves to get more than $14.5 million and there’s no one that’s going to say different to him about (it). He took it too personal.”
Toler is confident in one thing about Bell’s saga: Whatever advice he received from his agent or anyone else, Bell made the final decision on his own. Toler chuckled at the idea that Bell could have been pushed into a strategy he did not feel comfortable with.
“He’s his own person,” Toler said. “He’s not going to let anybody jeopardize anything for himself other than himself. Every time I’ve talked to him in the past about things, he’s just owned up to it. I’ve never known him to push anything on anyone – ‘someone influenced me to do this.’ Naw. He’s always been his own guy.”
Toler is among those who believe Bell should have accepted the franchise tag offer, that he passed up a lot of money he may not be able to get back. But he still supports Bell. Bell has kept his circle exceedingly small during the saga, and Toler has not spoken with him. But he continues to send him messages.
“I know he’s reading them,” Toler said. “I know he’s hearing them. When you care about somebody so much, the last thing you want to do is let them down. The last thing you want to do is confront them. Sometimes it’s just easier to avoid those people, because you don’t want to hear what they really think, or may not care what they really think. People can agree or disagree. How I feel about him is never going to change. I love that kid like a son. Do I agree with everything he’s done? No. But I love the kid. We just got a little bit different opinion. It doesn’t make what I say right, and it doesn’t make what he says right. It’s a lot of pride involved.”