Labriola on 'Welcome, Le'Veon' vs. 'Le'Veon who'

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Next week’s the week. Then again, Labor Day was supposed to be the day.

• What we’re talking about is Le’Veon Bell’s potential/rumored arrival at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, presumably to report for work, seven weeks after he said he was going to, and three months after he was supposed to.

• A couple of points of clarification: By writing “after he said he was going to,” I am referring to what his agent had indicated at one point about Bell’s 2018 plan being a repeat of what he had done in 2017 – arrive at the team’s facility on Labor Day to sign his tender, practice with the team for a week, and then play in the opener in Cleveland; and the “supposed to” part references the start of training camp. But “supposed to” isn’t the same as “had to,” because Bell wasn’t under contract at the time the Steelers reported to Saint Vincent College as a result of not having signed his franchise tender.

• Anyway, with those details out of the way, what will follow here will be my general view of how I would proceed if I were making the decisions for the Pittsburgh Steelers, which thankfully I am not, and if Bell actually shows up next week during the team’s bye week, which at this point is nothing but a rumor.

• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is being offered as my opinion, and as only my opinion. I did some research into some of the rules and regulations involved, but no one has whispered in my ear about the tone or direction this should take.

• So, here we go:

• The first thing I would do is meet privately with some of the team leaders, and Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward would be the first two players I would seek out. I would ask them to be candid about what they thought of re-introducing Le’Veon Bell to the locker room, and I would make sure they understood I wasn’t interested in anything except their raw emotional take. I also would ask them if a majority of the teammates with whom they are close feel the same way.

• I’m consulting with some other prominent players as well – chief among them Ben Roethlisberger because of his status as the franchise quarterback, and Ramon Foster because of his position as the team’s player rep and his standing among his peers as a wise veteran – because I don’t want to poison the atmosphere, one way or the other.

• Maybe they really feel betrayed by Bell and don’t want to have anything to do with him on a professional level again, or maybe their emotions swing the other way – that they truly believe any previous hard feelings would be treated as water under the bridge and now Bell is a guy who can help the team win. Whichever it is, I would want to know, and I see the best way of finding out is by asking them.

• Also on the to-do list would be separate conversations with Bell and Mike Tomlin. One-on-one. Strictly business, not personal.

• With Bell, is he all-in on the 2018 Steelers? Will he accept whatever role Tomlin determines is best for the team, or is he most interested in preserving his body for impending free agency in 2019? Is he at all bitter about some of the things said by some current offensive linemen when he failed to show up the week of the regular season opener?

• With Tomlin, the same general type of questions, but only from the perspective of a head coach.

• All of the questions, all of the discussion would be designed to get to the heart of the issue of whether adding Le’Veon Bell to this particular mix of players and coaches at this particular point of this specific season is going to be in the best interests of the Pittsburgh Steelers. All of it strictly about the business of trying to compete for a championship from this moment forward, and I would hope each individual would speak his mind and tell the unvarnished truth, because I would be planning to do exactly that with each of them.

• And before anyone dismisses the potential for any of these concerns to materialize into something significant, consider something Ben Roethlisberger said last week about the division of labor in the backfield when/if Bell reports.

• “It’s a good thing I’m not the coach,” said Roethlisberger. “I don’t know. I think James (Conner) has done some amazing things and deserves to be on the football field. We also know what Le’Veon is and what he brings to the table. I guess we’ll cross that bridge if and when it happens.”

• That quote is a reflection of the respect Conner has engendered in his teammates by how much he has worked to improve himself as a second-year pro, and how that work has translated to the contributions he’s now been making on the field. No, Conner is not yet to the level of being a first-team All-Pro, but it wouldn’t be too smart to yank his playing time for a guy just showing up at midseason.

• I’m also making the request to the NFL for a two-week roster exemption for Bell. Let us pause here to explain this process.

• Once a roster exemption has been requested and granted, both the team and the player must come to a written agreement on the player’s compensation during the term of the exemption, which can be up to two weeks. And in this case, because of the amount of time Bell has been away from football activities, the roster exemption almost certainly would last two weeks.

• If the player and the team cannot come to a written agreement on the player’s compensation during the period of the roster exemption, the tender cannot be signed. Which means the clock doesn’t start ticking on the two weeks of the exemption, and Bell is not able to report.

• That clarified, I’m not paying Bell during the two-week roster exemption. Absolutely not his regular weekly salary under the franchise tag, and not some reduced rate, either. That’s allowed under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and so that would be my position. If he doesn’t agree, then the tender cannot be signed, and the can gets kicked down the road, because it’s impossible to believe a football player who hasn’t played any football for seven months can show up, run through a couple of padless practices while getting paid at a regular season rate and be ready to make contributions to the team.

• I’m not rescinding the franchise tag, nor am I releasing Bell after he signs it, because that would be tantamount to providing the Patriots with an All-Pro running back. And that is not happening.

• Bell will be able to explore the market as a free agent come March 2019, but I’m not allowing that exploration to happen in October 2018.

• I would, however, continue to work the possibility of trading Bell, but I would be thoughtful about where I would be sending him – no AFC North teams and no teams I would view as contenders for playoff spots in the AFC – and I’m not making any deal in exchange for anything except fair value. Which would start with, but not necessarily be limited to, a second-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

• If Bell signs the tender – and remember the tender cannot be signed until the compensation during the roster exemption is agreed upon by both sides – and if the trading deadline passes without a deal, and once the two-week roster exemption expires, he will be due his regular weekly salary of $855,000. And he would be paid that money without complaint, because that’s what is mandated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

• But on game day, whether he’s in uniform or on the inactive list will have been determined by those discussions with Tomlin, with the leaders in the locker room, and with Bell himself.

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