PITTSBURGH — Technically, the relationship between Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers is still alive. The team owns his rights. They can place the transition tag on him this offseason, which would spark a labor fight.
Realistically, only practical business would lead the Steelers down that path.
Sentiment is gone.
Two years of rocky negotiations and broken promises have left relationships frayed, paychecks forfeited and a divorce almost finalized.
An examination of the Bell saga from both sides shows he seemed destined for a yearlong holdout.
That Bell’s locker remained untouched for the first 10 weeks of the season gave hope that an All-Pro would rejoin the backfield. Players would glance at that wooden No. 26 nameplate and wonder if this was the week. They eventually realized the exercise was futile at best, making closure in the form of pillaging his locker that much easier. “I guess we just had to move on,” cornerback Mike Hilton said.
Tension had bubbled under the surface for some time, though. Many inside Steelers headquarters embraced a belief that Bell simply did not want to be in Pittsburgh any longer, destined to forge a free-agency path in the name of underpaid running backs.
Negotiations offered hints. Some with the team felt Bell sent mixed messages during the process, vacillating from big per-year payouts to heftier guaranteed money.
In the end, the Steelers would go as high as $14 million per year, but guaranteed money was an issue.
Bell told ESPN in October an offer of at least $40 million in guarantees would have facilitated a deal with Pittsburgh. The Steelers offered $17 million guaranteed on a five-year, $70 million deal, Bell says. Though the particulars of those guarantees are unknown, it’s likely that $17 million was the signing bonus and they counted the first year as essentially guaranteed since they wouldn’t cut him months after doing a deal.
Either way, Bell’s demands, coupled with his jet ski excursions and night club appearances in early September, gave the Steelers reason to believe he had set his sights on 2019.
But Bell had his frustrations with a front office that told him in January they planned to lock him up and put the franchise tag to bed. Bell was hurt the Steelers followed up those promises with what he felt was a flimsy contract structure. Basically, the Steelers don’t guarantee money beyond the first year of a deal, but in return they try to honor the contracts of their homegrown players who have impact.
Bell called that “monopoly money” because the Steelers could walk away from the deal when they wanted. In his eyes, it was far from a compromise.
“They want to have it both ways, and that’s not fair,” Bell said.
Also, one person close to Bell said he was affected by the business of football tainting its purity. Bell had developed into a great player from the youth level to the pros, only to be told his worth doesn’t correlate with other great players. That bothered him in a big way.
Then there were Bell’s comments to ESPN in January that he would consider sitting out the season or retiring if asked to play under the franchise tag.
Those comments were viewed largely as a public negotiation tactic, only Bell wasn’t bluffing.
Privately, a faction of the Steelers wanted no distractions after a 2017 season that couldn’t escape them. The team survived a divisive Week 3 anthem sit-out in Chicago, Antonio Brown‘s Week 4 sideline flare-up, the loss of Ryan Shazier to a spinal injury and James Harrison’s clumsy exit on the way to a 13-3 season. But the year was long, and the days before a playoff loss to Jacksonville featured Bell’s sit-out comments and a Sports Illustrated story quoting safety Mike Mitchell saying Pittsburgh would beat New England in a rematch.
Teammates valued Bell as a great player and vibrant locker room personality, but they also knew he makes his feelings known on social media. So, on the Monday of Week 1, they made sure not to bash Bell publicly to avoid any clap-back fuel from the player.
When Wednesday of that week arrived and Bell wasn’t there, several offensive linemen didn’t hesitate to call him selfish. Even if Bell came back, they knew it was pretty much over.
“After Week 1, there was a calm in this locker room,” guard David DeCastro said. “It had kind of passed. We knew what we had to do. Do our best job, so there were no questions about ‘what if.’ It gave us a chip on our shoulders naturally.”
Things became clouded after that. Bell planned to return in the Week 7-8 period, but something changed. Many believed the Oct. 30 trade deadline became a factor, though the Steelers never got a legitimate offer for Bell. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported Bell and the Steelers discussed a deal that would have Bell report if the team promised not to tag him in 2019, which the team couldn’t promise. The Athletic reported earlier this month that Bell got “new info” in the week before the reporting date that the franchise tag would be too steep (more than $25 million) for the Steelers to use, thus affecting his plans.
Even as of Week 10, though, Bell was in Pittsburgh and team president Art Rooney II left the door open for Bell to enter.
Now, the stage is set for tense divorce proceedings, and both sides are gunning for the house.
The Steelers must decide by early March whether placing a transition tag on Bell is even worth the headache.
Because Bell didn’t play, the team could argue Bell’s transition number should be around $9.5 million. The logic: This year’s tag was $9.63 million and next year’s could be in that ballpark.
But the Steelers are anticipating the NFLPA filing a grievance against them because the collective bargaining agreement states the transition tag should be 120 percent of Bell’s last salary, or $14.5 million. Bell earned $12.1 million off the franchise tag in 2017.
Those numbers could be moot because the transition tag gives Bell the right to negotiate with other teams. Those teams can structure a deal to make sure the Steelers don’t match.
Letting Bell walk in free agency is the cleaner breakup. Bell gets what he wants, and the Steelers will get a good compensatory pick for his departure.
But neither side will do any favors. The Steelers will do what they feel is best for business. On paper, elite players are good for business.
Bell once thought he had to play in 2018 to remind people what he can do. That plan, along with $14.5 million in forfeited earnings, was overshadowed by the glimmer of hope 2019 unrestricted free agency provides.
Perhaps all of this could have been avoided if the Steelers had signed Bell two years ago, before the franchise tag came into play. But Bell’s future was marred by back-to-back suspensions and a severe knee injury.
The timing was never right to keep one of the most prolific playmakers in franchise history in a black and gold uniform into his 30s.
After an exhausting two years, that might be the last thing either side wants.