When the news dropped Wednesday that Le’Veon Bell would not be reporting to the Pittsburgh Steelers that day — widely presumed to be the drop-dead date for him to be able to play in their season opener against the Cleveland Browns — fans got to see the rarest of sights: NFL players publicly attacking a teammate.
“He’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn,” left guard Ramon Foster told reporters.
“Honestly, it’s a little selfish,” center Maurkice Pouncey said.
“Just sit out the whole year then,” right guard David DeCastro told Mark Kaboly of The Athletic.
You just don’t seen stuff like this, folks. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s three of Bell’s offensive linemen — the entire starting interior — who lambasted their guy publicly.
I’ve heard backhanded shots directed at another dude. Blame definitely gets assigned in NFL locker rooms. One thing I noticed is that when someone swipes at a teammate, it almost always comes directly after a loss, at a player’s locker, when the tape recorder has been put away. The player is just venting, looking for an audience. In the context of the situation, this is understandable; these are highly competitive men who get to play only once a week, and a loss aches since they spent usually six days preparing for 60 minutes, only to fall short.
However, it’s clear that what you saw Wednesday was Bell’s teammates ripping him publicly because they believe he left them out to dry. This is the twisted world of the NFL, where players are essentially reduced to crabs in a bucket, fighting over a finite amount of dollars. It’s no coincidence Foster also mentioned that Bell makes more than him this year, with the subtext being — I’m here even though I feel like I’m underpaid, you should be, too!
While Foster’s sentiment is understandable, it’s misguided and unfair. NFL players have a finite amount of time to earn enough money to last them the rest of their lives, and they have to do this while navigating the constant threat of injury. Every team preaches family, but few, if any, mean it; it’s just a hustle, a dodge, meant to disguise the business end of the sport. Players need to get theirs when they can. Period.
Besides, NFL players are taught to sacrifice for each other, but when do teams ever sacrifice for them? Most decisions that are made above their heads are political, with draft position — not actual merit — sometimes determining the depth chart and who’s kept and released. The moment a team decides a player isn’t worth his salary-cap number for that given year, he’s either shaken down for a pay cut or outright released.
Under those circumstances, it’s hard to blame Bell – who logged a ridiculous 406 touches during the regular season last year — for missing games, as anyone can see that the Steelers are about to ride him into the ground like the Dallas Cowboys did DeMarco Murray in 2014 (449 touches) before his walk year.
At 26 years old, Bell knows this is likely his last chance at a big deal, so he has to maximize his bargaining position for when he hits free agency in March. And best believe, interested teams — even the ones that like him — will use another monster-touch season against him in negotiations.
If Bell were to hold out long enough this season to keep his touches in the 300-320 range, it might go a long way toward convincing some team that he’s worth something on an average per-year basis similar to the monster four-year, $60 million package that Todd Gurley got from the Los Angeles Rams a few months ago.
None of this absolves Bell.
His teammates’ comments read like men who weren’t just surprised, but hurt. They unleashed on Bell because they covered for him all summer, downplayed his absence, hinted that he’d be back this week … and then he left them hanging. It’s clear by their comments that, either Bell didn’t communicate to them when he’d be back, or he misled them. Either way, he put the group in a position to look stupid, and while it’s not necessarily their business — NFL players are never supposed to talk about another player’s money — on a visceral level, I get why they might feel betrayed.
And let’s not absolve the Steelers for their role in this nightmare. Yes, they reportedly offered Bell a five-year, $70 million extension this offseason. But the Steelers’ deals aren’t structured like other teams. Due to the way they’ve done business over the past 20-plus years, they’ve built a roster short on guaranteed money, which allows the team to eject from big-money contracts earlier than other teams could. Granted, they rarely do; but they possess the option.
Because of this, Bell’s offer from the Steelers reportedly included only $10 million guaranteed at signing, with Bell potentially making $33 million in guarantees over the first two years, with a significant portion of that presumably coming via roster bonuses. Considering Gurley’s deal included $45 million in guaranteed money at signing, you can argue Bell was wise to shoot the offer down.
So yes, this is how a situation gets to this point, when it becomes ugly and controversial. This will make for an uncomfortable setting whenever Bell returns, too, since both he and his teammates will eventually be forced to address the shade that was thrown his way Wednesday.
The good news for Bell is that the NFL is a performance league, which means that as long as you’re getting your job done on Sunday, people will forgive you for a lot. If Bell’s replacement, second-year bulldozer James Conner, falters, and the Steelers’ offense looks flat, fans and teammates alike will forgive him the moment he carries the Steelers to a win with his dazzling running, catching and blocking skills.
Remember, the 1993 Cowboys started 0-2 when Emmitt Smith missed the first two games with a holdout. His backup, Derrick Lassic, faltered, and some Cowboys fans were ticked at Smith for being gone. But when team owner Jerry Jones finally lured him back by showing him the money, and Smith promptly led them to their second straight title, all was right in the world.
Conner could flip this scenario on its head by being dominant. He’s about the only one who benefits in this situation. Not only does he have a chance to step in as a starter, he’ll also be running behind a ticked-off line that wants to show the bell cow back who has spurned them who’s boss.
What’s more, a big season from Conner could turn public sentiment against Bell and force him to return sooner, even eating into his workload — something that could hurt Bell’s free-agent standing.
But the odds are there is no replacing Bell, whose size, patience and various skills make him one of the best all-around players — not just backs — in the league.
And provided that’s the case, until he returns to his rightful place in the starting lineup, and one of the league’s best franchises finds a way to douse the unusual current of controversy coming out of their building, this situation promises to be an ongoing bad look for everyone involved.
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