Ready or not, here it comes:
- Fans of the professional baseball team in Pittsburgh are honked off because ownership won't spend the money it takes to keep the team's best players.
- Fans of the professional football team in Pittsburgh are honked off because ownership is trying to spend the money it takes to keep the team's best players.
- Free agency in the NFL officially is set to begin at 4 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, March 14, but in Steelers Nation the fireworks were set off eight days earlier when the residents' favorite football team placed the franchise tag on Le'Veon Bell for a second straight year.
- One might assume the fireworks would be celebratory, especially given Bell's production since being the team's second-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. In five seasons, Bell has been voted first-team All-Pro twice, he has finished in the top three in yards from scrimmage three times (2014, 2016, 2017), he just turned 26 years old, and in the playoffs he has 424 yards rushing on 81 attempts (5.2 average) and three touchdowns to go along with 13 receptions for 91 yards and another touchdown.
- Over the last two years, there are 23 NFL running backs with at least 15 carries inside the 5-yard line, and Bell is atop the list with 12 touchdowns in 17 attempts for a 70.6 success rate in terms of getting the ball into the end zone. To put Bell's numbers there in perspective, Todd Gurley has 15 touchdowns in 30 attempts (50 percent), Ezekiel Elliott has 11 touchdowns in 25 carries (44 percent), and Leonard Fournette had seven touchdowns in 12 attempts (58.3 percent) as a rookie in 2017.
- And finally, there's this from NFL Research, "Le'Veon Bell has averaged more scrimmage yards per game (129.0) than any other player in NFL history in his first five seasons (minimum of 50 games)."
- Bell is a workhorse. He's always in shape. His injuries to this point in his NFL career largely have been knee ligaments as opposed to the soft tissue injuries that reflect fatigue or not being in prime condition. He never taps out of a game at a critical moment. Never shies away from contact.
- But he's also the most criticized great Steelers running back since Franco Harris.
- The rap on Harris was that he was soft, that he ran out of bounds too often instead of taking on a defender to gain a few more inches/feet. The rap on Bell is that he's selfish, not a team player because he wants too much money. And while Harris' career here ended in a contract dispute, a difference was that he was under contract when he opted not to report to training camp, while Bell has been in compliance with all of the rules and regulations of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.
- Stepping away from the finances, the issue that Harris' critics and Bell's critics underestimate is how difficult it is to replace those kinds of players.
- In terms of truly difference-making running backs, the Steelers didn't replace what Harris brought them until that 1996 trade for Jerome Bettis. And when Bettis announced his retirement from the podium inside Ford Field while holding a Lombardi Trophy, the Steelers weren't able to find a difference-maker to replace him until they spent that second-round draft pick on Bell in 2013.
* But all of that is in the rearview, and where the situation with Bell stands now is this: the Steelers have placed the exclusive franchise tag on him for a second straight season, and the sides have until July 16 to come to an agreement on a long-term contract. If they cannot, Bell will play for $14.54 million in 2018.
- And he will play for that amount, and he will do it for the Steelers, because any alternatives to that are simply not realistic.
- Let's begin with Bell's threat, or hint, that he might not report to the team until Week 10 of the regular season, possibly as "punishment" to the team for not giving in to his demands while also earning the year toward free agency that would allow him to fulfill the legal requirements of the franchise tag and set himself up for 2019.
- Really? A guy who wants paid is going to forfeit nine game checks of $855,294.12 each to make a point? He's going to throw away $7.698 million to make a point? Send a message? And if he chooses such a path, does he not understand such an act would tarnish him in the eyes of teams that otherwise might be inclined to get in on the bidding come 2019?
- And unless Bell signs a long-term deal with the Steelers before July 16, there definitely will be open bidding for him in 2019 because there is no way he gets tagged for a third straight time. Based on the rules for franchise tags, in 2018 as a two-time tagged player Bell was due 120 percent of his previous year's salary, which is how this year's number got to $14.54 million. Then in 2019, as a three-time tagged player Bell would be due 144 percent of his previous year's salary, which would bring the total to a cool $20.938 million.
- Put together a productive season in 2018 and cap it off with a nice run in the playoffs, and then hit unrestricted free agency with that on the resume and almost $27 million in cash from the previous two seasons. Or, risk all of that in some misguided quest to tilt at windmills? Nah, not buying it. Bell isn't stupid, or a martyr.
A TRADE ISN'T REALISTIC
* For the Steelers to trade Bell, he would first have to sign the tender, and any notion of trading him to the Cleveland Browns for one of their two No. 1 picks in the top four overall is too ridiculous to consider seriously.
- The Browns are a team involved in a total rebuild, and they'll begin that process this offseason under the guidance of a general manager in his first season on the job with this team. Based on the rules of the current CBA, teams hold the rights to draft picks for four years, with an option to exercise an option for a fifth year.
- Last year's fourth overall pick was running back Leonard Fournette, and he signed a four-year, $27.1 million contract with Jacksonville, which works out to an average of $6.8 million a year. Why would the Browns, even with their recent history of incompetence, bypass a chance to pick, say, Saquon Barkley, and have him under contract at those kinds of numbers over the next four years, in exchange for a one-year $14.54 million arrangement with Bell?
- It's stupid to suggest that, and I wish Steelers fans would stop doing it in the emails they submit to Asked and Answered. And for the Steelers to settle for anything less than that kind of a premium draft pick for a 26-year-old running back who is a two-time first-team All-Pro and has averaged more scrimmage yards per game (129.0) than any other player in NFL history in his first five seasons (minimum of 50 games) would be stupid as well.
LE'VEON IS NOT HERSCHEL
* I saw a recent article written by a reporter, who should know better by the way, that the Steelers could move Bell in a trade similar to the way Dallas moved Herschel Walker and then use the bounty to reconstruct their roster as they see fit.
- The Cowboys traded Walker in 1989 in the midst of a 1-15 season, and those Cowboys also were in a total rebuild. Troy Aikman was 23. Michael Irvin was 23. Emmitt Smith was 20 and still playing for the Florida Gators. And what the Vikings did in being on the wrong end of that deal has served as a cautionary tale for any subsequent NFL team on the verge of making the mistake of believing it's one player away from winning a championship. Nobody's doing those kinds of deals for one veteran player anymore.
- Unlike the 1989 Cowboys, the 2018 Steelers are built to win now. Yes, the organization's goal for each and every season is to compete for a championship, but this is a time when the team's franchise quarterback is openly talking about the possible end of his career.
- Ben Roethlisberger said back in January that he would like to play for three more years, and based on how long many of the team's other key players are under contract, the Steelers' time is now. Free agency didn't really take hold in the NFL until five years after the Cowboys traded Walker for that bounty of draft picks.
- The 2018 season is the time for proven commodities for these Steelers, and Le'Veon Bell fits that description.
FREE AGENCY = FOOL'S GOLD
* Saving the $14.54 million and using it on free agents is another popular suggestion, and it's so amusing to hear this path suggested by people who begin with some version of: "I've been a die-hard Steelers fan since before Chuck Noll was hired …" If true, they'd undoubtedly know the Steelers never have been big players in the free agent market and as an organization do not believe in free agency as a means of roster building.
- Agree or disagree with that, it doesn't matter. That's a long-standing organizational philosophy, and it's not going to change now.
- Also, the Steelers conducted their free agent meetings – in which the personnel department and Coach Mike Tomlin spent days going over a list of the prospective free agents – and it's quite possible the determination was that the 2018 crop wasn't going to offer what the Steelers need, and so storing money to spend on that phase of the offseason wasn't necessary, or wise.
- Free agency also is a crapshoot. Even if the team identified a player who would "fix the defense," what if that guy signed elsewhere? For family reasons, or location, or climate, or because of more money? Then what? And a sure way to create discord in the locker room is to jettison a homegrown star player and replace him with a flavor-of-the-month free agent who is getting overpaid a big buck and then doesn't deliver in a big way as advertised.
BELL ISN'T BLAMELESS IN THIS
* This being America, there is nothing wrong with Bell wanting to maximize his earnings, with him wanting to create a market for those who will follow him as NFL running backs, but he's not doing himself any good in the court of public opinion by airing his financial laundry on social media.
- The fans' perception of Bell would be softened considerably if he wouldn't have made his contract demands public and instead allowed his agent to convey the threats and ultimatums that typically go along with these kinds of negotiations.
- Based on what Steelers President Art Rooney II and General Manager Kevin Colbert have said about social media this offseason, it has been made clear that team management isn't about to be influenced by what is on social media, nor will it react publicly one way or the other.
- As for Bell, here are some statistics about the way the Steelers approach the contracts they negotiate with their homegrown players:
- According to Ian Whetstone, an author of overthecap.com: "Since 2002, the Steelers have signed homegrown players to $774,826,457 worth of second contracts through 2017. They've paid out $682,288,369 of that amount. That's 88 percent. When people say that NFL contracts don't mean anything, it largely doesn't apply to homegrown Steelers. Oh, and only $196,481,000 of those contracts were guaranteed. More than 70 percent of what they've paid out was non-guaranteed salaries and bonuses."
- More from Whetstone: "While I'm crunching numbers, this holds pretty true for contracts for these homegrown Steelers players beyond their second (contracts). In that same time frame, the team signed $413,480,441 worth of third, fourth, and fifth contracts--$119,610,000 guaranteed – and paid out $322,510,876 (78 percent)."
- What Whetstone's research shows is that just because the money isn't technically guaranteed, the Steelers historically honor the numbers they put on paper.
WORTH THE RISK?
* The one part of the franchise tag that can be attractive to the player receiving it is that as soon as said player signs the franchise tag papers, the tender coming along with the tag is guaranteed. Fully guaranteed against illness or injury or getting cut. Not guaranteed against a league suspension or retirement, but guaranteed against an injury sustained, say, while training on his own.
- Bell does a lot of training on his own, and it's in fact likely he's doing that as you're reading this. Had Bell signed the franchise tender hours after the Steelers filed the papers with the league office, he would be owed $14.54 million if he injured himself today while running or lifting or doing any of those tortuous drills that make him what Tomlin refers to as "a highly-conditioned" athlete."
- How will this ultimately play out?
- That's nothing but a guess at this point, but in the absence of a long-term deal, a good guess would be there will be no clear winner, there will be pain on both sides, and at some point in the near future both sides will come to the understanding they would have been better off if it had never come to this in the first place.