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The Pittsburgh Steelers need a lot of things in the next week.
They need head coach Mike Tomlin to learn the concept of de-escalation. They need players to stop talking about a teammate whose return to the locker room has been inevitable since the trade deadline. They need Le’Veon Bell to get on a plane. And most of all, they need to get on with this temporary reconciliation, with each side recognizing it’s the best for both of them.
In the not-so-subtle vernacular of Tomlin – volunteers, hostages, whatever you want to label this Facebook relationship status – it’s time for the Steelers and Bell to embrace each other. Because it makes things only better for both.
Consider the imminent fangs in the remaining Pittsburgh schedule: the Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Chargers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. Followed by a potential AFC playoff goliath in the Kansas City Chiefs and an NFC scoring juggernaut in the Super Bowl. Now consider that on the other side of all this, Bell’s aggressive free-agent market can expand if he again showcases his “unicorn” running back status.
There’s a Super Bowl trophy to be secured here and there’s a lot of money to be made in free agency. Regardless of hurt feelings, the Steelers and Bell can boost each other’s agenda from this point forward. That is exactly what they need to do when Bell shows up by the Nov. 13 deadline to report this season (which he will).
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be awkward moments. There’s no getting around the fact that Bell made a business decision and then took a lengthy fall vacation in Miami while his teammates were carving out an AFC North-leading 5-2-1 start. Or that James Conner not only filled in for Bell, but exceeded him statistically and forever won the locker room in the process. Nor is there any way to ignore that Tomlin and multiple Steelers players took some manner of shots at Bell in the process – with the head coach basically painting Bell as someone who needed to be held “hostage” in order to show up and play for the franchise.
That’s a door that swings both ways. You could argue that Bell has every right to feel more hurt by the past few months than the Steelers, given the reality that the team retained him with a franchise tag (holding him hostage from free agency, if you will). After Bell refused to report for the season, you heard nary a negative thing out of his mouth about his teammates or the franchise. In fact, he was openly supportive of Conner and others. Aside from a few vague emojis from Bell’s Twitter account and a jet ski video that someone else posted, he was largely silent.
Conversely, a smattering of Bell’s Steelers teammates didn’t resist the urge to take shots at him or suggest he was becoming irrelevant. Then Tomlin took out a straight razor and insinuated Bell wouldn’t be in Pittsburgh willingly. And all of this steamed-up rhetoric played to the frustrated fan base, which always trends in the direction of the team and against the player during a contract impasse.
So, yeah, it’s going to be awkward for a bit.
But here are some realities that everyone needs to consider. First, the Steelers didn’t pay Bell anything during his holdout. It’s not like he was cashing checks the past few months. Second, Pittsburgh got a gift out of the situation, in the realization that Conner is the answer at the position and will save the team tens of millions on the salary cap the next few years. Third, you can be sure that Bell still has plenty of supporters and friends in that locker room. Guys like Antonio Brown (who has supported Bell in his holdout) and even Conner (who will be seeking his own payday in the form of a huge extension after the 2019 season).
And in the long run, Steelers fans will get their chance to gloat because the odds suggest this holdout won’t really help Bell when it comes time to sign his next contract. In March, pursuing teams will still look at him as having a 27-year-old body clock. There won’t be a financial bump because he avoided a few hundred touches in 2018. And Bell will have lost millions in salary that he’ll likely never gain back in any provable way. If anything, he’ll merely have avoided a few months that could have seen him suffer an injury that would have been catastrophic for his next deal. Then again, he could still suffer that kind of calamity in the next few months. So in the rearview mirror, this will all have been about narrowing a percentage of injury risk. That’s it.
When Bell reports, that end of his business decision will have been accomplished. What’s next matters most. The focus shifts to what kind of physical shape he’s in and how quickly he can contribute on the field. And maybe most importantly for the Steelers, how Bell and Conner can both be used. Undoubtedly, it puts pressure on offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to think of how the pair can be used creatively in a game plan.
Despite his rhetoric, that’s the upside that should have Tomlin overjoyed. He has an offensive line that is playing remarkably well for assistant Mike Munchak. He has a running back in Conner who has been more productive than Bell over an eight-game span despite getting fewer touches than Bell got in the same span last season. And now he has Bell, who entered 2018 worthy of being mentioned in the same grouping as the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley and the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott.
That’s a bonanza of opportunity that suddenly places the Steelers in a position to go toe-to-toe with any offense in the NFL. With the kinds of multiple looks and mismatches that have made the Rams, Chiefs and Saints a nightmarish assignment for defenses this season. Imagine Bell, Conner, Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald all on the field at the same time. Now imagine what defense has a scheme to solve every one of those problems. It’s essentially an impossible task, particularly with a seasoned quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger who can identify weak spots at the line of scrimmage and change plays to exploit a mismatch.
In a way, Bell holding out may have put the Steelers into their best possible scenario in 2018. It gave them another bishop on the chess board in Conner and another set of variables for opponents to fret over the final three months of the season. Maybe the only downside will be when the tough playoff game is hanging by a thread late in a fourth quarter and the Steelers are facing a third-and-2 scenario with only one ball to hand off.
If and when that moment comes, who gets the call – Bell or Conner? The hostage or the volunteer?
That’s not an easy question right now – and it definitely won’t be in January or February. But neither answer is good for the rest of the AFC. And the Steelers should be thrilled about that.
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