The NFL’s deadline for running back Le’Veon Bell to sign his franchise-player deal, join the Pittsburgh Steelers and be eligible to play this season came and went Tuesday. Bell remained a no-show, meaning he will sit out the entire season in his contract standoff with the team, and the Steelers will chase a Super Bowl without any chance of receiving a late-season boost from Bell.
Now each side must live with its choices and make the most of its circumstances.
As Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said at his news conference earlier Tuesday when asked about the possibility that Bell would not report to the team by the league’s 4 p.m. deadline: “So be it.”
After the deadline passed, the Steelers issued a no-frills written statement by General Manager Kevin Colbert that said: “I want to confirm that Le’Veon Bell did not sign his franchise tender today and, as a result, he will not be eligible to play football during the 2018 season.”
For the Steelers, it means a continuation of what has become business as usual this season. Second-year running back James Conner has become a standout in Bell’s absence. The Steelers are winning, and their offense is clicking. They must cross their fingers, hope Conner remains healthy and able to withstand the heavy workload, and try to reach a Super Bowl — something they have been unable to achieve with Bell in the lineup.
Getting Bell back would have created intriguing possibilities for the offense. Bell has excelled both as a runner and receiver during his five seasons in the NFL. It would have made no sense for the Steelers to replace Conner with Bell as their No. 1 running back, not with Conner playing so well. But they could have found ways to mix Bell into the game plan. In the race for AFC superiority, Bell’s arrival could have given the Steelers the potential to make a meaningful late-season improvement.
It won’t happen. That actually makes life, from a practical standpoint, a bit easier for Tomlin, who doesn’t have to smooth over any locker room tensions. Bell’s teammates were outspoken earlier in the season about his decision not to show up. That hardly ever happens in the NFL, in which a teammate’s business-related decisions are usually regarded as just that: his business. It spoke to just how betrayed some of Bell’s teammates felt.
But those passions dulled as the weeks passed and Conner demonstrated just what a capable replacement he is. The Steelers tired of fielding questions on the topic. They came to regard Bell as a luxury item they didn’t need. Tomlin recently told ESPN that the team needed volunteers, not hostages. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after a recent win in Baltimore that this offense potentially is the best and most versatile the Steelers have had in his career.
The Steelers (6-2-1) have won five straight games. They are coming off a dominating 52-21 win at home Thursday night over the Carolina Panthers. Conner had a string of four straight 100-yard rushing performances ended in that game and is in the NFL’s concussion protocol, making his status for this Sunday’s game at Jacksonville uncertain. But he has firmly established himself as a breakout performer this season, running for 771 yards and 10 touchdowns through nine games and adding 39 catches for 387 yards.
“I’m proud of what James is doing and has done,” Tomlin said Tuesday.
Bell’s tenure with the Steelers almost certainly is over. He is eligible for unrestricted free agency in the offseason, and it would be cost-prohibitive for the Steelers to use another franchise tag on him. They could use their transition-player tag, enabling them to match any contract offer he would receive from another team. That could lead to a trade. But more likely, the Steelers will permit Bell to leave via free agency and allow his departure to count toward the compensatory draft pick or picks they might receive based on the NFL’s complex formula of free agency gains and losses.
No one should begrudge Bell or any other player the opportunity to make as much money as he can as soon as he can in such a violent sport. The earnings window is particularly narrow for running backs. But the financial prudence of Bell’s approach certainly can be questioned and undoubtedly will be evaluated in retrospect, once the entire matter plays out.
He passed up $14.544 million by not playing this season under his franchise deal. Before that, he rejected an offer from the Steelers in July reportedly worth about $70 million over five seasons; that offer reportedly would have paid him about $47 million over the first three seasons of the deal. Whatever deal he signs will be judged against the backdrop of the money he passed up from the Steelers.
There will be suitors once he hits free agency. Bell is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and one of the NFL’s best and most complete running backs. He remains in the prime of his career — he’ll be 27 when the free agent market opens — and he avoided the wear and tear of playing this season. It’s doubtful that teams will be dissuaded from signing Bell simply because he did not report to the Steelers this season.
His biggest obstacle remains the notion that running backs are mostly expendable in today’s NFL, not worth the heftiest of contracts and relatively easily replaced with players found in even the middle rounds of the draft. Bell will have to convince a team that some running backs deserve the money he is seeking.
Bell worked the system. Whether he worked it in his favor remains to be seen.
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