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The Le’Veon Bell FAQ: Why Didn’t the Steelers Star Show Up Tuesday?

As expected, the running back missed the deadline to sign his franchise tender and will sit out the rest of the season. How did the situation get to this point? And what does that mean for his future?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Le’Veon Bell did not report to the Pittsburgh Steelers by the deadline on Tuesday, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, making him ineligible to play for the remainder of the 2018 season.

As recently as last Thursday, Steelers president Art Rooney II said he expected Bell to return to the team this week. Yet Bell didn’t show after being franchise-tagged by the Steelers for the second consecutive season, and he will sit out the rest of 2018 and almost definitely sign elsewhere in March.

Bell can paint a compelling case that, on a per-game basis, he has been the most prolific non-quarterback in NFL history. In the 62 games Bell has played across five seasons since entering the league, he has racked up 7,996 yards from scrimmage—more than any other NFL player since 1950 through the first 62 games of their career. Bell has taken a massive gamble on himself, and the next contract he signs will have a major ripple effect on league economics, whether he wins or loses the bet. Yet the specifics of the situation are so complicated that following the saga has become exhausting. (Franchise tags? Random deadlines more than halfway through the season? Tweets with upside-down text that force you to lock your phone’s screen orientation and flip it upside down?) We’ve gone through the nitty-gritty details so you don’t have to do any homework.

Why did Bell become ineligible today?

Bell had to report by Tuesday to join the Steelers this season, according to Schefter. Bell was franchise-tagged by the Steelers in March for the second year in a row, but because he did not sign the tender, he was neither under contract nor officially part of the team. Now it’s too late to join Pittsburgh.

Can he play for another team this season?

No. Pittsburgh could have traded him if he signed the tender before the trade deadline, but that passed two weeks ago. There was also a slim chance that Pittsburgh would rescind the tag and make Bell a free agent immediately (as the Panthers did with Josh Norman), but the franchise didn’t do so. Bell can’t play until 2019.

What has he lost by not showing?

Every week Bell missed, he forfeited a check for $855,529. (For reference, his backup, James Conner, will earn $578,000 for the season.) By missing the whole season, Bell is losing out on a $14.54 million salary. Even after taxes and agent fees, that’s enough to make a serious dent in the DuPont Registry.

He’s also lost a lot of public support.

“It’s costing me some fans,” Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler in October. “A lot of people call me selfish, but I’m really not. I’m doing it for guys behind me or guys who don’t understand what’s going on in the business of football. The 22 years I’ve been playing football, I’ve always brought value. I don’t think the Steelers valued me as much.”

So why did he do this?

This was not a typical holdout. Bell wasn’t asking for more money. In fact, he wasn’t even eligible to receive a new contract, because he and the Steelers didn’t agree on a long-term deal by the July 16 deadline. Instead, Bell’s absence was about preserving his health.

Since Bell entered the league in 2013, he has touched the ball 1,541 times in 62 career games, which comes out to a league-leading 24.9 touches per game, or 398 per season.

“Knowing my worth and knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches,” Bell told Fowler.

Bell’s interview with Fowler came just days after Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who held out before returning to play in a contract year, broke his leg earlier this season. But Bell has been beating this drum since January, when he said he would consider sitting out the season or even retiring if the Steelers franchise-tagged him for the second year in a row.

“Just get the numbers straight, exactly where we want them,” Bell said in January. “I’m not going to settle for anything. I know what I do and what I bring to the table. I’m not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I’m not getting what I feel I’m valued at.”

Considering Conner has already touched the ball 203 times in nine games, Bell was justified in thinking he was in line for another massive workload.

Why is Bell eligible for free agency, after all?

Multiple outlets reported that if Bell didn’t return by Week 10, he would not have accrued a full year of NFL service and wouldn’t be eligible to become an NFL free agent. It turns out that was not true. Bell was eligible to hit free agency at the end of this season, whether or not he showed up this week.

Can the Steelers just tag Bell again in 2019?

They can, but they probably won’t. The franchise tag is too expensive to use on a running back three times in a row, because of how it escalates over time (Washington fans know this story):

  • Year 1: The average price of the top five salaries at their position or 120 percent of their previous salary, whichever is higher. (In 2017, Bell earned the average of the top five running back salaries, which was $12.1 million).
  • Year 2: 120 percent of the previous year’s figure (this is why Bell was set to make $14.54 million this year after earning $12.1 million in 2017).
  • Year 3: 144 percent of the previous year’s salary or the highest positional franchise tag, whichever is higher.

So franchise-tagging Bell again would cost the Steelers more than $20 million in 2019. There’s almost zero chance that Pittsburgh would do that.

There’s an outside chance the Steelers will argue that because Bell didn’t show up, the team could franchise him again next year for the same price that it did this year (the more palatable $14.54 million) but NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and Aditi Kinkhabwala reported that Pittsburgh doesn’t intend to argue that point and has accepted the 2019 tag would be the Year 3 cost.

If this sounds confusing, don’t worry! Even the NFL’s lawyers and Bell’s agent were unclear about the specifics here as recently as this week, according to ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio (who speculated that the Steelers ceded the Year 3 point to avoid having Bell show up).

Beyond the legalese, the Steelers have little reason to want Bell back. Bell’s absence has been a source of distraction for coaches, players, and ownership, and he’s not even responding to head coach Mike Tomlin’s text messages.

Also, Bell’s crusade about his value has been severely deflated by what’s transpired on the field. Conner has been just as good as Bell (if not better) at roughly 4 percent of Bell’s cost and has 4,000 percent the local popularity. It’s hard to envision anyone at any level of the Steelers organization wanting Bell back at anything close to market value.

Contractual Ambiguities Intermission: Have you seen Bell’s upside-down tweets?

Yes, but in case you haven’t:

Do you know what they mean?

a photo of Danny Heifetz tweeting the word “No” but upside down and backwards, like Le’Veon Bell just did.

Can I drop him in fantasy football?

Yes. Conner is the King of Western Pennsylvania now.

So Bell will become an unrestricted free agent?

It’s not a guarantee. Even if the Steelers don’t hit Bell with the franchise tag, they could still use the transition tag, which would allow him to negotiate with other teams but give the Steelers the right of first refusal to match any offer Bell signs (akin to restricted free agency in the NBA). There are some murky details here about whether the NFLPA would fight Pittsburgh’s ability to transition-tag Bell, but even if they did, the Steelers would still be unlikely to match any offer Bell signed.

With all of that said, the Steelers will probably let Bell walk. The transition tag wouldn’t qualify Pittsburgh for a compensatory draft pick, but if Bell leaves in regular old free agency, the team might be able to squeeze a third-round pick from the league. (If you thought the definition of a catch was hard to wrap your mind around, don’t even bother trying to parse compensatory draft picks.)

What can he earn in free agency?

This is the $14.54 million question! Can Bell actually profit from leaving $14.54 million on the table?

The Steelers reportedly offered Bell a five-year deal worth as much as $70 million, but only $17 million of that figure would’ve been guaranteed—a far cry from the $45 million guaranteed that Todd Gurley got in his four-year contract, which is worth as much as $57.5 million. Pittsburgh’s front office doesn’t offer guaranteed money in future years, and Bell told Fowler that the $70 million non-guaranteed figure was “Monopoly money.”

“I understand how the Steelers do contracts,” Bell told Fowler in March. “Last year, I was pounding the table on guaranteed money. That’s not the case. If I’m not getting guaranteed money, I want a lot more up front. ... It’s year-to-year with the Steelers. Essentially if I sign a four- or five-year deal, I’m playing four or five franchise tags.”

If guaranteed money is the barometer for Bell’s negotiations with other teams, then he’s likely to slot in somewhere between Gurley’s deal and David Johnson’s, which is for three years with $31.8 million guaranteed and can be worth as much as $39 million.

Bell has been hoping to be paid like a wide receiver (he had the 10th most receptions last season), but that isn’t how the running back market operates. Even Gurley’s deal, which is the richest for any running back in the league, has $20 million less in guaranteed money than the one Odell Beckham Jr. signed a month later. It’s part of a wider trend where a variety of factors have suppressed running back salaries. The only positions paid less than running backs are punters and kickers.

“We do everything,” Bell told Fowler in July 2017. “We block, we run, we catch the ball. Our value isn’t where it needs to be. I’m taking it upon myself to open up some eyes and show the position is more valuable.”

Bell likely won’t be able to get top-end receiver money, but he’s betting that he’ll be able to overcome the difficulties facing running backs because of their perceived lack of value once he hits free agency. The best recent example of a player betting on themselves after receiving the franchise tag was Kirk Cousins. Cousins wasn’t the best quarterback in the league, but by making it to free agency he had the most options, and he parlayed that into a history-making deal.

Yet the odds are that Bell is unlikely to earn enough guaranteed money in his next contract to make passing up on $14.54 million for this season worth it financially.

So the holdout was a huge mistake?

No.

This weekend, as reports that Bell would not play for Pittsburgh emerged, a February 2013 tweet from his verified account recirculated.

The tweet is likely referencing a debate around then–consensus no. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney sitting out a season at South Carolina. Yet a lot has changed since Bell tweeted that. Pittsburgh drafted him two months later, and over the next five years gave him a league-leading workload but refused to commit to him, which meant that the team had little incentive to protect his long-term health. That would qualify as “somethin else.”

It’s easy to say that this is how business works in the NFL, but put yourself in his shoes: His employer treated him like a depreciating asset, something to be discarded once the value was squeezed out of him. If that’s a smart decision by the team, then Bell saving that value and offering it to his next employer is also a smart decision.

“It’s always interesting to me when players make a hard business stance they are vilified, and deemed to be greedy and irrational and whatever, and there’s a little tinge I think associated with black players doing it,” Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, told Jesse Washington of The Undefeated in October. “It just sounds different when I hear some of the critiques. It feels different. I’m not saying that is definitely the case, but you very rarely hear [the critiques] when the Tom Bradys or Aaron Rodgerses of the world take a very hard stance as it relates to their value.”

Most of the narrative around whether Bell has succeeded in his holdout centers on whether he is going to make more money, but Bell has said since last season that the money was a conduit for respect.

“I’ve made a lot of money, I’m happy where I’m at, I’ve got a good family—I don’t really need to play football,” Bell told Fowler in January. “Right now, I’m just kind of doing it because I love it. Now, I’ve done everything but own a Super Bowl. … I don’t necessarily care about the money aspect of it. I just want to be valued where I’m at. If I am playing this game, I want to set standards for all the other running backs behind me, like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, guys like that. I’m a guy they can kind of look at. I feel I can do that. I’m in a position where I can do that, and I’m going to do it.”

Sitting out 2018 may not be the wisest move strictly in terms of dollars and cents, but it’s clear that Bell isn’t using money as the sole parameter in this decision, and we shouldn’t use it as the sole parameter when we judge him for it.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Jadeveon Clowney sitting out at Michigan; he attended South Carolina.