You’ve heard similar things before, but this time it’s etched in stone: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell must report to the team by Nov. 13 if he wants to play this season. To judge from two words posted Monday by the three-time Pro Bowler, he might be arriving a little sooner than that.
“Fairwell [sic] Miami,” Bell said on Twitter, presumably referring to the city where he has been spending much of his time this season, training and, at least on occasion, hitting the odd nightclub. The question on everyone’s mind is whether he was implying two other words: “Hello Pittsburgh.”
Bell has yet to offer any further public comment, in keeping with the generally low profile he has maintained while holding out from the Steelers. Not long before his tweet Monday, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that the Steelers “have not had contact with Le’Veon Bell this week,” adding that “barring new development in next few days, [the] team doesn’t expect Bell to report for [the] Thursday night game against Carolina.”
That lack of transparency was feeding rumors last month that he would be reporting around the time of the team’s Week 7 bye and would play in Week 8, or that the Steelers would try to trade him, or that he would report to Pittsburgh after the Oct. 30 trade deadline. Now Week 9 is almost in the books, and until his cryptic tweet, Bell had shown that he would rather continue holding out than sign the franchise tag.
As he has waited, Bell has probably noticed that the Steelers have continued to play well, winning their fourth straight game Sunday, this time in Baltimore.
“We haven’t spent a lot of time focused on [Bell’s absence] because it’s not within our control. Those decisions are Le’Veon’s,” Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin told ESPN’s Dianna Russini. “We need volunteers, not hostages.”
Second-year running back James Conner is one of those “volunteers,” rushing for 743 yards and scoring nine touchdowns in Bell’s absence. “Taking nothing against James, the running of the football is an 11-man job,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got a great belief in our offensive line. They’re doing a great job opening holes for him. But to James’s credit, he’s running, catching, blocking, doing all the things we ask our feature runner to do.”
As the Steelers improved to 5-2-1, Bell keeping his talents in South Beach rather than signing the franchise tag for a second straight season. The team could still place the transition tag on Bell after the season, a move that would allow it to match any offer sheet Bell might receive from another team. That would be worth between $9 million and $10 million, far less than his unsigned $14.5 million franchise tag.
If he is to play at all this season, he must report by Nov. 13, when Week 11 officially begins. Each week that passes with the franchise tag unsigned costs Bell another $855,000.
If Bell decides to return, Steelers players said they’d look to Tomlin for cues on how to behave.
“It’s his own personal battle,” tackle Alejandro Villanueva said last week. “None of the players can really understand what he’s going through. But at the same time, the one thing that is happening is we’re playing football, we’re trying to win, we have a chance this year to be a really good team. Anything counterproductive to that, to the players, seems a little bit of a waste of time.”
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