Published 8:16 PM EDT Oct 2, 2018
Mike Tomlin dropped a hunch about some particular Steelers star power on Tuesday, expressing a certain no-sweat vibe, given that he’s seen it before.
No, the pressure-cooked Pittsburgh coach wasn’t talking about holdout running back Le’Veon Bell. This was about all the disconnection going on between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.
“They’ll smooth it out,” Tomlin assured during his weekly news conference. “They’ll find their rhythm. Usually, over the course of the journey, the cream rises.”
Smooth it out. The same idea will need to apply when Bell returns to the fold in a few weeks.
According to an ESPN report, Bell, yet to sign his franchise tag tender, is set to return during Pittsburgh’s bye in Week 7 and conceivably get back into the lineup for the rematch against the Browns in Week 8.
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Tomlin indicated Tuesday he still hasn’t even talked to Bell. While he’s aware of the report, the coach stuck to his “cross that bridge when we come to it refrain.”
That’s surely a practical approach. But given the myriad layers of Bell’s holdout – including the effect it’s had on an underachieving team tied for last place in the AFC North – there has to be some value in getting a sense of the timetable seemingly now in play.
Sure, the Steelers (1-2-1) could have used Bell when they fell to the Ravens on Sunday night, when an out-of-sync Roethlisberger threw 47 times in a tight game. And don’t think for a minute that the disjointed rhythm between the quarterback and arguably the best receiver in the NFL (averaging just 68 yards per game) doesn’t have anything to do with Bell, who can provide needed balance.
Bell has made an essential point with a holdout that has cost him $855,000 a week, deducted from his $14.455 million franchise tag tender. There’s no automatic replacement. The fill-in, James Conner, has had some moments, but the Steelers rank 28th in the NFL in rushing and 27th with an average rush of 3.6 yards.
The other point is that Bell, with 1,541 regular-season rushes and receptions on his meter through five NFL seasons, is still healthy, unlike Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who ended his holdout after the preseason and is now done for the year with a fractured leg. The outcome for Thomas, who wanted a long-term deal or a trade as he played on the final year of his contract, is why Bell has been willing to holdout. It’s a cold business, and tat works both ways.
By working the system, Bell, 26, can return before Week 10 and still become a free agent next offseason – his price potentially hinging on whether he will hit the market with his health intact.
Banking on health is always a crapshoot when it comes to football, so perhaps karma will be a factor, too, in Bell’s case. So much can happen between now and March, when the next free agent market opens. Yet after logging a career-high 321 carries last season, it seems Bell will have saved the wear-and-tear of almost half a season when he returns.
This may not go over well with the Steelers faithful, who see their team pressed to chase Cincinnati and Baltimore in the division race and, like most other fans, are prone to siding with management in contract disputes. The Moneyball factoring may not go over well inside the locker room, either, given the noise that was expressed publicly in unprecedented fashion when Bell didn’t show up before the regular-season opener, as he did when playing under the franchise tag last year. Usually, teammates don’t dare to address another player’s money … and true to form, last spring when negotiations were open, there were no Steelers lobbying for Bell to get the type of guaranteed money that running backs Todd Gurley ($45 million) or David Johnson ($31.88 million) later collected from the Rams and Cardinals, respectively.
Still, with the optics of this saga including the social media posts that Bell sometimes drops – from nightclubs or jet-skiing in Miami, for instance – that factor might have to be smoothed over.
Too bad Instagram wasn’t around when Hall of Famer John Riggins held out for an entire season, a generation ago, or a couple decades ago when franchise-tagged Sean Gilbert sat out a year … which led to a trade.
These are different times, but it’s still a matter of NFL business. Maybe it’s not quite that this absence will make the heart grow fonder. But Bell, like the player who missed six games due to injury or a suspension, can potentially make up for his absence – if, of course, he can help the Steelers get to where they can’t go without him.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.