Le’Veon Bell is reportedly back in Pittsburgh. But the disgruntled running back would still apparently rather post tweets than report to the Steelers.
A terse Twitter post by Bell on Monday, in which he bade farewell to Miami, where he had been training while holding out from his NFL team, gave many the impression that his next stop would be Pittsburgh. That appears to have been the case, but so far, he has been more interested in playing basketball than the sport he could have been making millions by playing this season.
He also was interested on Wednesday in making something of a defense of his lengthy absence from the Steelers, who placed a $14.55 million franchise tag on Bell this summer after failing to come to an agreement on a long-term contract. With an eye toward getting a lucrative deal from another team in free agency next spring — as long as he stays healthy — the three-time Pro Bowler has declined thus far to sign the one-year offer, in the process costing himself over $855,000 each week since the regular season began.
“I’m not apologizing for what I believe is right for myself, family and the rest of my peers, period,” Bell said in a Twitter post rendered in upside-down text. “Also if you’re really finding the time to figure out what I’m saying, you’ve proved my point.”
According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, who noted that there was “no indication Wednesday that Bell had visited the team’s facility,” a manager of a Pittsburgh gym confirmed that Bell was shooting hoops there on Tuesday. He has until Tuesday to sign with the Steelers if he wants to play football this season, but there could be significant financial incentives for him not to do so.
As Fowler pointed out, the Steelers would be very unlikely to place a third straight franchise tag on Bell after this season, because that would obligate them to pay him more than $20 million, an exorbitant sum for a non-quarterback, for the 2019 campaign. The team would have the option, though, of applying a transition tag, which would mean paying him 120 percent of his previous salary.
Because Bell has not been paid anything this season, that salary figure could come from the 2017 season, when he made $12.1 million, so the transition tag would garner him around $14.5 million next year. However, if he signs before Tuesday and ends up playing in, say, six games at full pay, that would mean he earned $5.13 million this year, and 120 percent of that would be roughly $6.2 million.
If that’s how it plays out, Bell and the players’ union would almost certainly contest any attempt by the Steelers to set such a relatively low 2019 salary figure for him, but he might decide to simply avoid that scenario by sitting out the rest of the season. Doing so, though, would cost him a year of NFL service, which would have implications for his pension, health care benefits, 401(k) plan and other financial calculations.
There has been speculation that Bell and the Steelers may have already come to an informal understanding, one in which they agree to simply let him walk in free agency without placing any tag on him, if he stays away from the team for the rest of the season. It’s possible, if the Steelers have yet to clearly signal that they are willing to go along with this arrangement, that his arrival in Pittsburgh is meant to prod them into doing so.
The Steelers would have reason to possibly prefer that Bell stays away, given that the team has attained a solid 5-2-1 record in his absence, with backup running back James Conner making his own Pro Bowl bid. When Bell did not report before Week 1, he was subjected to unusual criticism from some teammates, and he might prove to be an awkward, if not outright divisive, presence in Pittsburgh’s locker room.
“This Le’Veon thing is just a cloud over us at this point,” an unidentified Steelers player said Wednesday to NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala. “Just make a decision, sign or not, be in or out, and let’s all move forward.”
“Just about everybody has an opinion on my life and worried about what I’m doing … Don’t judge me off my decisions because maybe this isn’t what you’d do,” Bell said in another of his upside-down Twitter posts. “But most people don’t take the time to just simply read between the lines … and that’s clearly on them.”
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