Becker: Bell managed holdout poorly
Courtney Becker | Monday, November 12, 2018
Well, Pittsburgh Steelers fans should be much happier with their current record of 6-2-1 than they were five weeks ago, when the team was at 1-2-1.
In large part, the Steelers’ improvement is simply a product of them settling into the season and finding a rhythm — they usually have a few embarrassing stumbles at the beginning of a season, as last year’s nail-biting 21-18 win over the Browns in the season-opener and their Week 3 loss to the Bears suggest.
But not constantly focusing on what they’re missing with Le’Veon Bell’s continued holdout certainly helps as well. Why isn’t it a constant distraction anymore? Simply put, Bell overplayed his hand.
As Sports Writer Luke Brizzolara rightly pointed out back in September, Bell not only has the right to hold out, but does future running backs a service by doing so. That is, until he proved he is replaceable within a great offense.
Bell easily has been one of the most talented athletes on Pittsburgh’s roster since the team drafted him in 2013, and his production season-to-season has been tremendous. Last year, after holding out through training camp, he had 321 carries for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns to go along with his 85 receptions for 655 yards and two touchdowns. That’s an average of four yards per carry and 7.7 yards per catch, an unbelievable rate.
While Bell claims he deserves to be paid at a Todd Gurley level because of his high volume of offensive production, the Steelers are steadily demonstrating that they have enough offensive weapons for Bell to not warrant more than his $14.5 million franchise tag.
Bell’s replacement, second-year back James Conner, looked abysmal in Pittsburgh’s Week 2 and Week 4 losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens, respectively, averaging just 2.1 yards per carry in each game. But Conner flipped a switch against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 5 and is now averaging more yards per carry and reception than Bell did last season, at 4.7 and 9.9, respectively.
In addition to their running game, the Steelers have a valuable franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and the best wide receiver in the NFL with Antonio Brown (which is a large part of why the Steelers can’t afford to pay Bell the numbers he’s demanding) as well as rising stars like wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on offense. Even after Conner left the Steelers’ Thursday-night matchup to enter concussion protocol this week, Pittsburgh continued to dominate the Carolina Panthers, with Roethlisberger earning a perfect quarterback rating with a stat line of 22-25 for 328 yards and five touchdowns.
So even though Bell is apparently no longer expected to report to the Steelers by his 4 p.m. deadline Tuesday, rendering him ineligible for the 2018 season, Pittsburgh isn’t worried. Even though the combination of Bell and Conner at running back this season would be a true luxury, the Steelers know they have the talent on offense to make up for what they’re missing with Bell and are confident they can win without him as long as their defense shows up. Keep in mind, Pittsburgh’s loss to the Chiefs was a 42-37 barn burner in which Roethlisberger passed for 452 yards but Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw more touchdowns (six) than incompletions (five).
Maybe if Bell had returned earlier in the season and then the Steelers started winning, his holdout would’ve looked like a success. Due to his inability to recognize that the Steelers were never going to pay him what he wants and that his holdout was more to show other NFL teams his true value, however, it’s looking like a bust at this point.
Bell says he is “preserving his body” by not playing this season, and there could very well be merit to that, but in the meantime he sacrificed $855,000 with each game he missed and the chance to prove to everyone that he could be the difference-maker for an offense. And who knows if missing a season of playing football and being in game shape will really pay off for his performance?
Bell is still a top — if not the top — running back in the NFL. But by mishandling his holdout, Bell might’ve just decreased his value rather than proved it.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.