There was a time when Le’Veon Bell came “so close” to signing a long-term contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead, he became the second of the team’s offensive stars to depart after a turbulent, tabloid-worthy season.
Bell was called selfish for holding out the entire 2018 season rather than accept a second franchise tag. Wide receiver Antonio Brown was suspended for the Week 17 game and was traded to the Oakland Raiders. General Manager Kevin Colbert, in explaining why the Steelers were all-in on Ben Roethlisberger, used the unfortunate description of a quarterback playing with “52 kids.” It was Kardashian-level turmoil for a team that has prided itself on quiet stability over the years.
Now, the dynamic running back is with the New York Jets and says he’s never been happier, but in an extensive interview he revealed some of the dysfunctional dynamics of a Pittsburgh situation that he said no longer worked for him.
“The organization wants to win. [Coach Mike] Tomlin wants to win,” Bell said in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas published Wednesday morning. “Ben wants to win — but Ben wants to win his way, and that’s tough to play with. Ben won a Super Bowl, but he won when he was younger. Now he’s at this stage where he tries to control everything, and [the team] let him get there. So if I’m mad at a player and I’m not throwing him the ball — if I’m not throwing AB the ball and I’m giving JuJu [Smith-Schuster] all the shine or Jesse [James] or Vance [McDonald] or whoever it is, and you know consciously you’re making your other receiver mad but you don’t care — it’s hard to win that way.”
Bell told Vrentas that his relationship with Roethlisberger wasn’t the reason he moved on from Pittsburgh, but added, “yes, it was a factor.” Still, he said he wished he had a “more open, more genuine, more real” relationship with the quarterback even as he diagnosed a problem that extends beyond just a player or two.
“AB isn’t the only bad guy in the situation,” Bell said. “Ben isn’t the only bad guy, either. It’s not just one person. It ain’t just me. It’s everybody.”
He described a Pittsburgh hierarchy of Roethlisberger, Colbert and then the rest of the players. His interactions with the Jets, he said, were different.
“It literally didn’t hit me until I was a free agent and I’m talking to [Jets Coach] Adam Gase on the phone,” Bell said. “That’s when it literally hit me when I’m talking to him like normal, I’m talking to him like I would talk to my friends. I felt like we’re on the same level.”
In a video interview with Vrentas, he added: “I didn’t feel in Pittsburgh that we’re even. I never felt that, and at that time it’s all that I knew. I thought that’s how it’s supposed to be, because I was never in a different situation, I was never nowhere else. I just felt like, if we’re teammates, we’re teammates. We’re all on the same [level]. "
As a rookie, he said, he was happy in Pittsburgh because that was all he had known in the NFL.
“Ben is Ben. He’s the quarterback,” Bell said. “At the time, I’m thinking that’s how it’s supposed to be. He’s supposed to be like that. Quarterbacks are leaders and, yeah, ... it is what it is. But you’re still a teammate at the end of the day. You’re not Kevin Colbert. You’re not Mr. [owner Art] Rooney, you know what I’m saying?”
Bell, a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, said he grew frustrated with something else, too.
“Pittsburgh is a great organization,” Bell said. “They’ve got a great owner, head coach. They kind of treat you like — they don’t treat you like you’re human. What I mean by that is like, yeah, I’m an NFL athlete, but still I’m a human being. You know what I’m saying? I still play video games, I still make music. They don’t want to allow you to be yourself. They want you to be, if you’re a Steelers [player], you’re literally playing football 24/7. You’re not supposed to be playing video games and, like, making music, playing basketball. You’re not supposed to be doing that. You’re supposed to be working out.”
Bottom line, it was time for him to leave.
“I felt for me to reach my full potential and be the player I know I can be, I’ve got to go play with different players, with players that want to see me succeed, who want me to be a great player,” he said. “I feel like getting a fresh start might be the best thing for me.”
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