Le’Veon Bell keeps sending mixed messages

Mike Florio
ProFootball Talk on NBC Sports

If Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell hopes to keep everyone guessing regarding his intentions, it’s working.

Days after dismissing as #fakenews a report that he had been telling teammates he’ll show up and sign his franchise tender on Monday, Bell supplied the true facts by not reporting — in direct contrast with what he did a year ago, while also operating under the tag.

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This latest move in the high-stakes game of chess/checkers/chicken undermines the prediction of Bell’s agent that Bell would repeat his 2017 strategy “barring something exceptional,” and Bell’s own vow to Steelers fans to have his “best season to date.” It becomes difficult to have that best season to date if Bell isn’t preparing for a game to be played in six days.

There’s still time for Bell to show up for Week One. But there isn’t much time to get ready. And there isn’t much Bell could get at this point by not showing up.

The Steelers can’t sign Bell to a long-term deal until after the regular season. That said, it’s possible that he hopes for a wink-nod, off-the-record understanding that he’ll get a deal in January — with the key terms understood by both sides. (Yes, this would be unenforceable and a violation of the labor deal. Yes, unenforceable arrangements that violate the labor deal happen from time to time.)

If that’s the plan, the “something exceptional” resulting in the ongoing absence may have been the flurry of contracts signed in the past week, from receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to quarterback Aaron Rodgers to defensive tackle Aaron Donald to defensive end (now linebacker) Khalil Mack. The first two didn’t hold out, and their deals were good, not great. Donald and Mack held out, and their deals were great, not good. So Bell’s holdout continues, in the hopes of also landing a great deal.

It’s also possible that Bell simply wants more money to play in 2018 than the $14.54 million he’s due to earn. Though the Steelers can’t give him a long-term deal, they can agree to pay more than the amount of the tender.

Or maybe Bell has decided not to try to have his best season ever but instead to preserve himself for the open market, a position influenced potentially by the weekend ACL tear suffered by 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon. This would point to Bell skipping out on game checks (in the amount of $855,000), showing up as late as possible to get credit for the contract year, and then quite possibly trying to do as little as possible during the final games of the regular season.

Or maybe Bell is hoping that the Steelers will get sufficiently exasperated with his failure to show up to rescind the tender. The decision and the ability of the Bears to pay huge money to Mack despite being only one week from the start of the regular season suggests that, if Bell were to suddenly land on the open market, someone else would find a way to pay him what he wants or something close to it. Or maybe even more than what he wants.

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