It’s official. Le’Veon Bell will not play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, or any other team, this season. No really, it’s officially official this time.
Like every other NFL and fantasy football fan, I’ve kept an eye on the Le’Veon Bell saga since training camp. Yes, if you drafted him number one in your fantasy draft it definitely sucks and will go down as the worst pick ever. We all know that Bell left a shitload of money on the table by choosing not to play and it seems insane to us normal working stiffs. Now that we find ourselves at what seems to be the end of this craziness (at least for this season), I find myself wondering…what actually happened?
In the interest of time, I’m not going to go through every detail of Bell’s career, but Bell was considered a good, not great player coming out of Michigan State. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft. No one saw Bell becoming the generational talent that he would become. Second round money is nice and all, but it’s not “set for life money” in today’s world. Everyone would agree that Bell MASSIVELY outplayed his rookie contract and was worth far more than he was getting paid. Despite his outstanding play on the field, Bell did have some injuries and a suspension for marijuana use. I’m sure those topics came up when contract negotiations started and the two parties couldn’t come to an agreement. Enter…the franchise tag.
The Franchise Tag
You can dive into the minutiae of the NFL’s contract rules and regulations if you’d like, but the Cliffs Notes version goes like this: the franchise tag is a way for a team to keep a really good player that they don’t want to lose for at least one year or, in extreme cases, up to three years. Usually, like in Bell’s case, this is what teams do when they are having a tough time in contract negotiations. The franchise tag is sort of a compromise and pays the player a high, guaranteed salary for the one year, while the two sides try to hammer out a long-term deal. The downside is if the player gets hurt, they are guaranteed nothing past the one year. After reportedly turning down a two-year deal worth $30 million guaranteed in 2016, Bell sat out training camp and played the 2017 season on the franchise tag. He earned $12.1 million during that first tagged year in 2017 and threatened to sit out the following season if tagged again. That is exactly what Bell did when he and the Steelers failed to reach an agreement this past offseason. The Steelers again tagged Bell and he was slated to make $14.1 million in 2018, but he declined to report and play under the tag. For those of you keeping score, if Bell had signed the two-year $30 million offer that was reportedly on the table in 2016, he would have played last year and this year while making around $4 million more than he would have playing the last two years under the franchise tags. Without knowing the specifics of the contract offered, I’m going to assume there was a team and/or player option for more years after the two. Worst case scenario, Bell is playing under the franchise tag in 2019 with $30 million already in his bank account from the 2016 two-year deal. As it stands instead, Bell has only made the $12.1 million from 2017, but he will have the freedom of free agency this offseason.
Ego and The Decline of the Running Back
This is where the train leaves the track for most people. Nobody can quite understand why Le’Veon Bell would just leave $14 million laying on the table, especially when he was going to be a free agent at the end of this year either way. It is a hard concept to grasp for the average American football fan and has made Bell one of the most polarizing athletes in recent memory. The answer is complicated and something that we can only speculate about. Let me preface my next sentence my saying that the term ego is not meant to be derogatory. Le’Veon Bell has a huge ego. Do you know who else has a huge ego? Michael Jordan, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady…the list goes on and on. You don’t become a great athlete without a huge amount of self-belief and determination. Bell has that, just like tons of other great athletes. The problem is that the NFL is hard on egos, more so than any other professional sport. It is really the last sport that basically employs players on a year-to-year basis. This system has clashed hard with Bell’s ego and his well-earned sense of self-worth. To make matters even worse, the value of the running back position that Bell plays has suffered a precipitous decline in NFL circles over the past several years. Those of you that play fantasy football have become well aware of the dreaded RBBC (Running Back By Committee) that has become the norm recently. This perfect storm of Bell’s unbelievable play on the field, his ego and belief in his value, and the steep decline in what running backs are paid, has created a huge disconnect between the Steelers’ front office and Bell.
No one can get inside Le’Veon Bell’s head, but I strongly believe that he thought he could prove to the Steelers how much they needed him by sitting out. It was actually not a bad plan. There was a very good chance that the Pittsburgh offense would sputter without their workhorse. If that happens, maybe the Steelers decide they need to pay Bell his asking price and get back to winning. What no one counted on was a dude by the name of James Conner. Bell’s attempt to prove his worth by being absent backfired in a huge way thanks to the play of Conner. You could make the argument (with statistical analysis to back it up) that the Steelers have actually been better offensively without Bell in the lineup. Conner’s breakout season has been the killshot to Bell’s attempt at a power play. The Steelers will happily pay Conner this season roughly what they were due to pay Bell in a week, while getting the same level of production.
Rage Against The Machine
Through various statements that he has made to the press and on social media, it becomes clear that Bell truly believes he is fighting something bigger than just the Steelers front office. He seems to be trying to set a precedent for the future of the running back position and the type of money that running backs can demand. The scope of this fight might even be bigger than just the running back position in Bell’s mind, he may feel that he is waging war against a league that uses players up and throws them away before they have to pay them any real money. The average career of an NFL football player is 3.3 years…this in a league where rookies sign 4-year contracts that are relatively inexpensive when compared to veterans. The combination of increased importance on passing the ball and fresh-legged running backs on rookie contracts has killed the market for proven backs with mileage on the tires. While Bell and many veteran players are understandably frustrated with billionaire owners taking advantage of NFL contract structures, this problem is a much bigger one than Bell can solve with a symbolic gesture.
Dollars and Sense
Bell has sent mixed messages throughout this ordeal. He has said that it’s not about the money, while also saying that he won’t settle for less money than he’s worth. We can debate whether or not Bell is sitting out this season based on principles or money, but there is no doubt that Bell has left a lucrative amount of money sitting on the table. Let’s go through a couple of scenarios…
Scenario #1: Bell signs the Steelers two-year $30 million offer in 2016. It’s a bit difficult without knowing the contract specifics and language, but it’s something like this…
Result A: Bell plays well and either has a player/team option for third year that makes him extremely well-paid or he gets a Todd Gurley type mega-deal of four-years with $45 million guaranteed. If Steelers decline option he becomes free agent, getting a Gurley-like deal from another team or he gets franchised (because in this scenario he didn’t get franchised in 2017) and makes around $16 million in 2019, bringing his three-year total to at least $46 million, with a possibility for as much as $75 million.
Result B: Bell plays poorly, or in a more likely scenario, gets injured. He’s got $30 million in his bank account, but nothing guaranteed going into 2019 or beyond. If it’s a career-ending injury his football earning power is over (though hopefully he would have a massive insurance policy in place for this scenario). If it’s an injury he can recover from, we have to assume he would still draw tons of interest and probably receive an offer similar to that of Arizona’s David Johnson, who just came off an injury, which was three-years, $30 million guaranteed. With this result, Bell is looking at a minimum of $30 million plus cashing in an insurance policy if his career is over or at worst a David Johnson type deal, which still puts him at around $60 million when things are all said and done.
Scenario #2: Bell declines the Steelers two-year $30 million offer in 2016.
Result A: Bell plays 2017 on a franchise tag making $12 million. He plays 2018 on another franchise tag and earns $14 million, bringing his two-year total to $26 million. After playing extremely well, Bell is now a free agent and gets a Gurley-type deal of $45 million guaranteed from either the Steelers or another team. Bringing his total guaranteed money to roughly $71 million.
Result B: Bell plays 2017 on franchise tag making $12 million. He plays 2018 for another $14 million, but suffers a very serious injury. The injury is career-ending and Bell leaves football with his prior career earnings, the $26 million from the two franchise tag years and what should be a massive insurance settlement. With a serious, but not career-ending injury, Bell commands only Johnson-type numbers on the open market, but is still at $56 million.
Result C: The situation we find ourselves in. Bell plays 2017 on the tag, earning $12 million. He sits out 2018, forfeiting the entire $14 million he would earn on the tag, but is healthy and a free agent entering 2019. Teams are slightly concerned by a year of inactivity, character questions and fear that he is a “system” player due to Conner’s performance. Teams offer Bell guaranteed money in the range between Gurley and Johnson. Let’s split the difference and say $37.5 million, which brings his total to $49.5 million.
The Goal Line
In hindsight, it appears Bell’s best financial move would have been to accept the Steelers offer in 2016. With that ship having already sailed, he has made decisions that have led to less money already in his pocket and less guaranteed money in his future. He did take the possibility of a career-ending injury out of play by sitting this year, but those types of injuries are extremely rare in this era of medical advances. It’s possible that Bell has just received very bad advice from his agent, but it’s hard to fathom that he’s been led that far astray. Whether right or wrong, he has done something that few star athletes have ever done…gave up an entire season in his prime of his own volition. I wish I could tie all this up in a nice little bow for you, but the search for answers in the Le’Veon Bell situation only leads to more questions. Is Bell selfish or selfless? Driven by ego or principle? Obsessed with money or indifferent to it? These are just a few of the questions that we will continue to work through as the Bell saga plays out.