Calls were made in an attempt to entice additional teams to sweeten the pot before all negotiating would be put to bed. Bell, the biggest name in this year’s wave of NFL free agency, was there for the taking. Surely, others would want to get in on the action as well?
Hours later, it was clear the expected bidding war had never materialized. And while there was interest in Bell’s services outside of New York (See: Oakland), it didn’t come close to the rumors of a six-team race or a $17 million-per-year offer.
Bell stood firm in his strategy.
So did the Jets.
And the contract details — which trickled out in the wee hours Wednesday morning, the same time the former Steelers running back released his much-hyped mixtape, “Life’s A Gamble” — immediately sent shockwaves through the NFL.
A total of $35 million guaranteed.
The collective cries were instantaneous.
Bell blew it.
I’ve tried to muster the same amount of outrage, attempted to locate the same level of disbelief and derision deep within.
I tried. I really did.
But I can’t seem to track down an ounce of “I told you so” in me, or worse, sizable scorn for a football player who chose to bet on himself.
Bell made a calculated risk. And now, it’s on him to live with his decision.
The Michigan State product was resolute in his strategy: Steer clear of Pittsburgh’s locker room for 16 regular-season games in order to preserve his health for free agency.
Initially, he had indicated he would return to the Steelers in the middle of the 2018 season and play under a franchise tag that would net him $14.5 million. But Bell did an about-face and never showed, stunning Pittsburgh and its fan base.
He had become the diva-like deserter, the self-centered, short-sighted player who had abandoned his teammates and his city for personal gain.
But Bell didn’t care what anyone else thought. He would ignore the detractors. He wouldfocus on what mattered most to him: securing as much fully guaranteed money as possible.
The Steelers’ history of not offering fully guaranteed money after Year 1 of deals sent Bell in search of financial assurances from someone else. He would sacrifice short-term gain for long-term success.
But “success” is subjective, especially in the NFL, where leverage is a luxury most players don’t have and opportunities to earn maximum dollar can be few and far between. As Bell rapped on “Free at Last” (Track No. 4 on his newly released mixtape): “They don't want you at the table. They gonna put you through some bulls--- if they able. They gonna work you and work you and underpay you.”
Money isn’t the end all be all, of course. Not when the makeup of an NFL front office, coaching staff and roster are paramount to a player’s growth and success. In a game of attrition, and in a sport where win-loss records dictate professional survival, price tags sometimes can’t compete with happiness. So if joining the Jets truly makes Bell giddy (despite his mutual interest in joining the Raiders), then more power to him.
But make no mistake: He failed to secure the bag in free agency.
I’m no NFL agent, but I often enjoy seeing players maximize their earning potential. In a system that’s financially rigged to benefit billionaires, I’m all for players collecting every dollar they possible can.
Bell, however, did not in this case.
In safe-guarding his body, he short-changed himself monetarily speaking. He forfeited $14.5 million by not signing his franchise tender last season. He also appeared to overvalue himself. (In Feb. 2018, he tweeted that $60 million “ain’t enough for me to come run with the Jets.”)
That said, Bell is far from a cautionary tale. His $13.125 million average per year is just shy of Los Angeles Rams’ running back Todd Gurley’s $14.37 million. Furthermore, Bell secured $28 million fully guaranteed at the time of signing, according to an NFL Network report — a figure that exceeds what Gurley ($21.95 million) and Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson ($24.68 million) received.
Had it not been for the drama he helped create in Pittsburgh, Bell’s deal wouldn’t have been criticized by so many. One of the most talented and versatile running backs in the NFL has a fresh start in a new city, on a Jets team that has significantly upgraded. (At least on paper.)
So, no matter how you or I feel about how Bell handled his stunning Steelers exit or his negotiating strategy in free agency strategy, it’s not about us. All that matters is that Bell made a choice.
He’ll never recoup the money he left behind in Pittsburgh. Nor will he ever convince doubters that he did what was best for him. But now it’s on him to prove he made the right gamble.
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