It was a day that marked the occasion of a lot of lasts. As in the last day Le'Veon Bell could report to the Steelers and sign his franchise tender in order to play any football for any team during the 2018 season. And the last day that Coach Mike Tomlin could be asked about it at his weekly news conference.
In both cases, nothing changed. Bell didn't report by the 4 p.m. EST deadline, and Tomlin didn't change any of his answers to the same questions.
The news conference began at noon, four hours before the deadline, and the questioning on the subject of Bell began with Tomlin being asked if he has had any communication with the Steelers' All-Pro running back. His answer to that one was "no." The follow-up was about his reaction to the silence.
"I have no reaction," said Tomlin. "I've told you guys and I've told you guys consistently, a reaction comes from me if and when he walks in the door. Until that happens, I'm business as usual, focused on those who are here and working, and appropriately so. That way I don't waste my time and theirs."
And what if Bell never walks in the door?
"So be it," said Tomlin.
A second-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Bell had 7,996 yards from scrimmage – 5,336 rushing on 1,229 attempts, plus 2,660 receiving on 397 catches – and 42 total touchdowns in 62 games with the Steelers, all of which were starts. But with Bell, one of the issues always attached to his professional resume are the games he was unable to start, either because of injury or suspensions for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Knee injuries in both 2014 and 2015 prevented Bell from participating in the team's complete playoff run in either of those seasons. And a groin injury kept him from being able to finish the 2016 AFC Championship Game.
In the Wild Card Round game vs. Baltimore in 2014, the Steelers were left with Ben Tate as the starting running back, and they lost to the Ravens. After being injured in the 2015 Wild Card Game victory over Cincinnati in 2015, Bell was unable to play the following week in Denver, and he had to be replaced in the lineup by Fitz Toussaint, whose fumble was a contributing issue in that loss to the Broncos.
Then in the 2016 playoffs, after carrying 29 times for 167 yards (5.8 average) and two touchdowns in a Wild Card Round win over Miami, and then 30 times for 170 yards (5.7 average) in a Divisional Round win in Kansas City, Bell was knocked out of the AFC Championship Game in New England after six carries for 20 yards, only to be replaced by DeAngelo Williams in a 36-17 Steelers loss.
Clearly, a healthy running back is integral to the Steelers' success in the playoffs, and with Bell no longer able to be part of that equation in 2018, Tomlin was asked about his level of satisfaction with the team's current depth there compared with those previous seasons.
"I'm not drawing comparisons to other seasons. I don't do that. I'm singularly focused on this group and the challenges that lie ahead with this group," said Tomlin. "The running back room is the group we've been working with since the day we checked into Latrobe. So there is no adjustment, there is no altering of feelings and thoughts regarding addressing the challenges our schedule holds for us as we move forward."
James Conner has been an unqualified success as the starting running back through this stage of the 2018 regular season, but his placement in the concussion protocol following last Thursday's victory over Carolina resurrected the issue of health at the running back position. Behind Conner, the Steelers have veteran Stevan Ridley and rookie Jaylen Samuels, but through nine games that pair has combined for 82 yards on 28 carries (2.9 average) to go along with another 40 yards on six receptions.
Ridley, 29, came to the Steelers with 2,817 yards rushing on 649 carries (4.3 average) in 52 appearances that included 25 starts for New England; Samuels, from North Carolina State, was the team's second pick in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. And as Tomlin said, there is no adjustment.
"I like his arrow," said Tomlin about Samuels. "It has continually been pointing up, but we expect that from him and all the rookies, to be quite honest with you. He has met that element of the challenge. He has been a positive contributor to our efforts. It has shown on special teams. He needs to continue to show on teams. In recent weeks, when given an opportunity to touch the ball, he has shown some on offense as well."
Leading up to today's deadline, there had been speculation about Bell's potential role with the Steelers this season, based on the combination of how much time he has missed and the success Conner has had both on the field and in winning the hearts and minds of his teammates. Tomlin said he and his assistants had not dabbled in any of that.
"No, because that is a waste of time," said Tomlin. "We have been focusing on the variables that are within our control, and that's the people who are here working. But I've stated that to you guys. I think you guys don't believe that I mean it. I do."
The players in the Steelers locker room can, and do, consider themselves a family, but because it's professional football there is an element of business attached to things as well. Finding a way to separate the business side can be difficult and potentially could fracture the overall closeness and morale of the group. With the exception of a flare-up at the start of the regular season, the Steelers have weathered this situation through a period that has had them overcome a slow start to win five straight games and post a 6-2-1 record as the current first-place team in the AFC North.
"I understand that business is an element of the game of football," said Tomlin. "There are elements of the game – relationships within the game, football-related relationships that we all hold near and dear and understand – and then in football at this level there also is a business element. Even when we don't understand it, we're sensitive to it. So we're not shocked when things happen from a business standpoint."
And that's where the Steelers are right now. At 4 p.m. today, Bell made a business decision, and they're not shocked.
"I'm sure (the media) will find a reason to bring it up and continue to re-hash it in some form or fashion even after today," said Tomlin. "It's just part of being us on this journey. I think that we all have gotten extremely comfortable with that element of it. In regards to how we function, and us, that train has left the station. We're comfortable with how we function, the people at our disposal, the division of labor, and our ability to ready ourselves for the challenges. The few unpleasant moments that we have to deal with (the media) week in and week out, that comes with the job. We embrace that, we accept that, we don't run from that because we're professionals."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"James Conner is still in the concussion protocol, not that that's a negative because part of getting out of the protocol is physical labor. We haven't worked. He'll be given an opportunity to work (Wednesday), and I think that will lay all of those discussions to bed. Stephon Tuitt has an elbow injury that could limit him in the early portions of the week. Marcus Gilbert is still working his way back from his knee injury. And as always participation will be our guide in terms of his availability or potential availability."