Ex-NFL player: You're asking Steelers to support Le'Veon Bell so he'll be healthy for another team
Geoff Schwartz understands why Bell is holding out but he also knows this is a complicated issue
Le'Veon Bell won't be on the field for the Steelers' regular-season opener on Sunday and as it stands, it's unclear when he'll rejoin the team. One of the league's most dynamic players wants to be paid like a running back and a receiver -- he rushed for 1,291 yards and caught 85 passes last season -- but he reportedly turned down contracts the last two offseasons that would have made him the NFL's highest-paid back.
A year ago, Bell reported nine days before the season and played on the franchise tag. The Steelers tagged him again this offseason and after the two sides couldn't work out a long-term deal, Bell again said he'd return to Pittsburgh before the season opener. But something changed and he remains at home, where he could be for a while.
According to Bell's agent, the running back doesn't want the Steelers to run him into the ground knowing full well that they're prepared to let him walk in the offseason. And to mitigate that possibility, Bell has yet to report. The issue is that the deadline for negotiating a new contract has long passed (July 15) and Bell can't earn more than the $14.5 million he's due on the franchise tag. Of course, he'll lose $855,000 every week he sits out and he could be down as much as $8.5 million should he skip the first 10 games. After that he'll need to report to still be eligible for free agency next March.
Player holdouts are nothing new, of course, but what makes Bell's case different is that his teammates appeared genuinely shocked that he didn't return to Pittsburgh this week.
"Honestly it's a little selfish," center Maurkice Pouncey told reporters on Wednesday. "I'm kind of pissed right now. It sucks that he's not here. We'll move on as a team. It doesn't look like he'll be in the game plan at this point (for Week 1). (Second-year running back James) Conner looks great. We'll worry about (Bell) in Week 2."
Guard Ramon Foster added: "What do you do? Here's a guy who doesn't give a damn, I guess so we'll treat it as such. I just hate it came to this. ... He's making seven times what I make twice as much as Al (Villanueva) is making and we're the guys who do it for him."
But this isn't about "messing with Bell's money," which is what we heard from some former players, this is about the perception among some of his teammates that Bell is being selfish. Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, writing for SBNation, nailed this point on Thursday.
For the record, I support Bell's cause. I hope every player makes as much money as they can. I've always been that way and nothing has changed. However, I do understand where the Steelers offensive linemen are coming from.
If you're asking, or expected the Steelers offensive line to publicly support Bell's absence from the team, you're essentially asking them to support Bell's absence so he can be healthy for another team in 2019. That's unrealistic to expect any teammate to support that.
We'll never begrudge a player for wanting to get paid but Bell's strategy is a curious one. Yes, injuries are a real concern but how will the 31 other teams view Bell's decision to put himself over his teammates and coaches because he's unhappy with a contract that can no longer be negotiated? There will no doubt be plenty of interest in Bell in the offseason but it's hard to imagine there will be suitors willing to pay him north of $15 million a year. Ultimately, this is less about Bell and more about the barrel the players but themselves over with the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.
"Without guaranteed contracts in the sport, it's a tough spot for players," Schwartz writes. "It's also a reminder of how much leverage owners have over players, something I hope players can fix in CBA negotiations. For that to happen, it will take the players being unified, striking, and willing to miss games to get a better deal."
The current CBA will expire after the 2020 season.
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