The Steelers open the regular season on Sunday against the Browns. That's four days from now and Le'Veon Bell, one of the NFL's most dynamic running backs, remains at home. A year ago, Bell reported nine days before the start of the season to protest being franchised after the two sides couldn't agree on a long-term deal.
The same happened this offseason with the expectation that Bell would again show up around Labor Day.
It didn't happen and his agent Adisa Bakari suggested Wednesday that Bell wanted to avoid the Steelers running the wheels off him in what is almost certainly his final year in Pittsburgh.
"He's going to do the things necessary to protect his value long-term," Bakari told ESPN's NFL Live. This is a departure from what Bell's agent said in July, when he told Sirius XM NFL Radio that "barring something exceptional," Bell would join the Steelers around Labor Day.
Now, days after Bell's teammates figured he'd report by Wednesday at the latest, they've gone from defending him to wondering where he is.
"Honestly it's a little selfish," center Maurkice Pouncey told reporters after practice. "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."
"Obviously, it's Le'Veon over the Steelers," Pouncey continued, suggesting that the running back was being selfish. "We are the Steelers. At this point, it's bigger than business. Now that it's game time and you have $14 million looming out there and your team really wants you here, at this point we have Conner."
Bell's actually set to make $14.5 million when he signs his tender, though he'll lose $855,000 for every game he misses.
More Ramon Foster on Bell: “He’s making 7 times what I make twice as much as Al (Villanueva) is making and we’re the guys who do it for him.”— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) September 5, 2018
Meanwhile, the Steelers issued another statement through director of communications Burt Lauten. "We are not going to discuss any conversations through the media," Lauten said. "If Adisa would like to talk further, he has the phone number to our offices."
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told reporters the offense will be fine without Bell.
And while that may seem like the franchise quarterback supporting the teammates in the locker room, the numbers support the words.
Damn, what will the Steelers offense do without Le'Veon Bell? Without him in 2015 they only averaged— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) September 5, 2018
31.9 points per game
As it stands, James Conner, a 2017 third-round pick, will earn his first NFL start on Sunday, and veteran Stevan Ridley and rookie Jaylen Samuels will serve as his backups. The Steelers also have a couple guys named Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster to keep the offense going.
The Steelers reportedly have no plans to rescind Bell's franchise tag, which means the running back can sit on his couch through Week 10, when he'll need to report and sign his tender to still be eligible for free agency in the spring. Such a move would cost Bell $8.55 million but he certainly wouldn't have any concerns about being overworked.
And in case you're wondering if the Steelers can trade Bell -- they can't. At least not yet.
Le'Veon Bell has a de facto no trade clause. Players with unsigned tenders can't be traded until signed. When I was agent, we refused to have Jimmy Hitchcock sign his RFA tender so the Pats couldn't trade him to Baltimore during the 1998 draft. He signed to be dealt to Minnesota. https://t.co/M69a5ZuCbG— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) September 5, 2018
Until Bell shows up that no-trade clause is also a not-gettin'-paid clause.