Before I can even get to the questions about what Le’Veon Bell means in terms of his coming back to the Steelers this season, I have to ask a question that trumps all of them. He has told us that he would have his “best year yet” and told teammates that he would report for week one. Neither of those things happened. So… Why should any of us believe him when he says he’ll return during the week seven bye?
With the example unfortunately set by Earl Thomas breaking his leg, one would think that Bell would be more inclined than ever to wait until week 10 and then have “injury issues” as former Steeler James Harrison suggested. But lets take a glass half-full approach here and assume that Le’Veon does in fact return when he says he will. Here are some questions that I have.
Will the Steelers Use the Two-Week Exemption?
The Steelers have applied for a two-week roster exemption during which Bell would be allowed to “practice” (mainly conditioning and individual drills, along with some individual instruction) until or unless he is deemed to be in condition to help the team. During that two-week exemption he would not accrue any games toward a season of service and the Steelers will not have to pay Bell the weekly $855,529 salary he is due. He would receive a Per Diem while training during that two week period similar to what players receive during training camp, but it’s a whole lot less than his scheduled salary. The sooner he reports, the sooner the clock starts on the exemption expiring and him beginning to collect the big checks.
Players do receive checks during the bye week which is likely part of Bell’s motivation for reporting at that time. If he reported week seven, it would likely mean he wouldn’t play until week nine.
If That Happens, Won’t It Be Too Late?
It certainly could be. With Atlanta this week and a trip to Cincinnati the next, the Steelers could easily be 1-4-1 heading into the bye week. Then a home game against the Browns and a trip to Baltimore await before Bell would actually touch the field. While optimistically unlikely, the Steelers could be 2-5-1 when he returns with games still to come against the Bengals, New Orleans, New England and Carolina to name a few. The point being, could the Steelers already be out of the playoffs before he ever plays?
What Happens If the Steelers are Hot?
Seems unlikely with the current state of things right? Mike Tomlin’s teams have gone on winning streaks before though. This week is very winnable because Atlanta is a wreck defensively. The Black and Gold always play well in Cincinnati so who’s to say they couldn’t be 3-2-1 at the bye? Or even 4-2-1 heading into week nine for what would likely be a monstrous mid-season game at Baltimore? If James Conner is racking up both rushing and receiving yards how can you replace him with a rusty and out of football shape Bell?
Is Bell Returning Really What Will Save the Season?
Here’s what we know about Bell and James Conner. Bell is a better running back. Bell is a better receiver. Bell is a better blocker. With these things being true, it’s a no-brainer that Bell would be a better option for the offense. But there are several factors here that need to be mentioned. As I stated above, if the team is already buried in the standings, will it matter? If Bell plays well and helps keep the defense off the field, will that still prevent the defense from mis-communicating? From missing tackles? From failing to get pressure on the quarterback? From failing to just flat out cover receivers?
Bell has proven himself to be an all-pro caliber player. No one can deny this; certainly not me. But is the separation so distant between he and Conner that this team suddenly becomes the Super Bowl contender it was thought to be? It sure seemed that Bell took about a month to round into good enough playing shape to be performing as well as he was capable of when he reported in 2017. This year he’s missed even more time. Is this going to be a factor?
Only time will tell but as I said in the beginning, none of this matters if Bell fails to follow through, as he’s already proven he’s willing to do. If Bell wants to prove to the league that he’s worth a contract that eclipses Todd Gurley‘s, he’s going to have to get to work and that work has to start on the field, not in the gym. If Bell wants to mend fences with the teammates who felt let down when he didn’t report week one, he’s got to get to work. If Bell wants to be in a position to ask those same teammates to make amends to him for speaking publicly on his contract situation, he’s going to have to get to work.
But, will he? And if so, when?
Through week four, the Steelers have saved $3,422,117.65 earmarked for Bell’s 2018 salary. That’s money they could have used to sign others, players who could have helped the team this year, and also money that they would have preferred to pay Bell beginning week one.
Ben Anderson contributed to this article.
Photo courtesy NJ.com