Labriola On

Labriola on the elephant that's not yet in the room

LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:

• This time, the elephant wears a No. 26 jersey and answers to the name, Le'Veon.

• Over the course of today, Steelers players will go through the process of reporting to Saint Vincent College for the start of a training camp that will last for three weeks and is designed to lay the foundation for the challenges of the upcoming season. Some will report with fanfare. Others will do their best to be invisible. Le'Veon Bell will do neither.

• There is no suspense attached to this, and there hasn't been ever since the clock ticked to 4:01 p.m. on July 16 without the player and team having successfully negotiated the long-term contract both sides swore was their goal. As is typical of the times in which we now live, the news became known via social media.

• ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted: "Via Le'Veon Bell's agent Adisa Bakari: 'His intention was to retire as a Steeler. But now that there's no deal, the practical reality is, this now likely will be Le'Veon's last season as a Steeler.' More: 'It became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player.'

• Then this tweet from Bell: "to all my Steeler fans, my desire always has been to retire a Steeler...both sides worked extremely hard today to make that happen, but the NFL is a hard business at times...to the fans that had hope, I'm sorry we let you down but trust me, 2018 will be my best season to date..."

• And lastly this statement from General Manager Kevin Colbert: "Even though we could not reach a long-term contract agreement with Le'Veon Bell, we are excited he will be with the team in 2018. We worked very hard to find common ground, but we were unable to accomplish that prior to (the July 16) deadline. Le'Veon will play this season under the Exclusive Franchise Tag designation. After the 2018 season is completed, we again will attempt to work out a long-term contract with Le'Veon in the hope that he will continue his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers."

• In between July 16 and now, the reactions have been predictable. Most of the fans' anger and blame has been directed at Bell, with a portion reserved for the agent. Polls reveal that the majority of fans asked believe the team should rescind the franchise tag on Bell, effectively making him an immediate unrestricted free agent. Really, all typical stuff, and all of it emotional as opposed to rational.

• So, what now?

• The idea that the Steelers would or should rescind the franchise tag on Bell is as ridiculous as the idea of Bell sitting out regular season game(s) in order to get closer to the November deadline for earning a year toward free agency while protecting his body from the demands of his job.

• If the Steelers weren't totally committed to having Bell at least for the 2018 season, they could have opted for the non-exclusive franchise tag back in late February. That way, had some team presented Bell with an offer sheet he was willing to sign but the Steelers weren't willing to match, they would've received two No. 1 picks from that team and used the first of those last April. But by using the exclusive franchise tag – again – the Steelers made it clear that they wanted Bell for the upcoming season and were willing to pay a premium to guarantee that.

• For Bell, skipping regular season games likely would prove counterproductive toward reaching his assumed goal, which is to re-set the market for NFL running backs while ensuring that he is the one sitting atop said market once this whole process reaches its conclusion.

• At $14.5 million – the franchise tag number for 2018 – divided by the 17 equal payments in which NFL players are compensated, Bell would forfeit approximately $853,000 for each and every regular season game he would miss in the attempt to protect his body from the demands of his job.

• Beyond being fiscally idiotic, such an approach would paint Bell in an unfavorable light, both with his current teammates – some of whom are integral to Bell's ability to do his job – and with a potential future employer. When a guy is seeking more than double what the next highest paid person is getting, a team considering footing such a tab is going to want to be certain it's getting an individual who's all-in all the time. In the show-me world of professional sports, skipping regular season games – for which he would be highly compensated – to the detriment of his current employer to secure an even more lucrative pay-day down the road is unlikely to entice future employers to reach for the checkbook.

• Nothing is going to change the current reality for the team or the player. Not the Steelers criticizing Bell and/or issuing dire predictions of the impact of him missing training camp and the preseason, because that won't get him to report. Not Bell posting examples of his workout regimen as he misses training camp and the preseason, because that won't eliminate the inevitable adjustment period once he signs the franchise tender and reports to the team. Not the fans venting, with either the player or the team being the focus of their ire, because that isn't going to have any impact on how this ultimately plays out.

• What can happen on this campus, what should happen over the next three weeks during this training camp, though, figures to impact the early part of the 2018 season for both Bell and the Steelers. Which could in turn chart the course for the rest of it.

• The Steelers can use this time and then the four preseason games to prepare for the adjustment period Bell will need once he reports to the team, which he has indicated will be just as it was last year: on Labor Day, six days before the opener in Cleveland against the Browns.

• Last summer, the team was hampered in developing running back depth by the soft tissue injuries that dogged then-rookie James Conner, who missed all but a handful of snaps of the offseason program and then was set back further by another injury early in camp that rendered him a spectator for too long to enable him to be ready to play at the start of the regular season.

• Conner is in his second season now, and he should be more mentally and physically ready for the demands that a training camp puts on the body of an NFL running back. For his part, Conner must stay on the field to get the required practice time, not so much to hone his running skills but to perfect his ability to fulfill the demands of the position unrelated to those times when the ball is in his hands. In other words, backs-on-backers will be an important drill for Conner this summer.

• And should injury again sidetrack Conner, there are other options. Stevan Ridley is a veteran who should be savvy enough to understand he won't make this roster if he misses as much on-field time at this camp as he did during the offseason program. Jaylen Samuels is a versatile rookie whose progress cannot be slowed by the same issues that dogged Conner last summer if he's to earn playing time at the start of the regular season. Fitz Toussaint has to show his value to the team extends beyond special teams. Jarvion Franklin must begin by showing he's more than a camp curiosity, and then he will have to improve steadily from there.

• It's popular to suggest the Steelers turn to these guys as options if Bell gets off to a slow start in 2018 as he did in 2017, but these guys first have to show that they can be viable options in all facets of the offense before that will happen.

• Over the course of today, the Steelers players and Mike Tomlin can expect to be asked about every aspect of the Bell situation, and then in the coming days or weeks Kevin Colbert, and maybe even Randy Fichtner and James Saxon can expect the issue to be broached with them. It's an issue that's not going away.

• And it won't go away unless Bell hits the ground running and receiving in Cleveland on Sept. 9 like the first-team All-Pro he has been twice already in his career … and then improves from there during an injury-free 16-game regular season.

• In 2017, the Steelers were faced with a different issue, a different breed of elephant, and at least partly because they failed to deal with it properly, their season ended prematurely.

• They get another chance at another elephant starting today, and dealing with this one successfully will entail on-field work to prepare some alternatives, some creative scheming to put those alternatives in a position to succeed, and showing some restraint when speaking into microphones or interacting on social media.

• The fate of their season could be at stake.

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