Le’Veon Bell’s teammates spent the offseason and all of training camp brushing off his absence, confident in their belief that the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro running back would eventually let the business side of things play out, sign his franchise tender and be at work when things start to get real.
He’s one of the best in the league and earned the right to take his time, they said. He’ll show up when it starts to matter, they said. We’re not worried, they said.
Time to worry. And vent.
Bell’s chair remained tucked neatly into his locker on Wednesday, meaning he will almost certainly not be available when the Steelers open the season in Cleveland this weekend.
And while Bell’s agent took to the airwaves to vaguely explain Bell’s reasoning for staying away, the men Bell has played alongside for the past five years are starting to run out of patience.
“Honestly it’s a little selfish,” said center Maurkice Pouncey, a captain who had predicted Bell would arrive by Wednesday. “I’m kind of [ticked] right now. It sucks that he’s not here. We’ll move on as a team. It doesn’t look like he’ll be in the game plan at this point.”
Veteran offensive guard Ramon Foster poked a little fun at Bell on social media, tweeting a picture of Bell’s head attached to the body of the character from the “Where’s Waldo?” books.
“What do you do?” Foster said. “Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn, so I guess we’ll treat it as such. I just hate it came to this.”
Bell and the Steelers spent each of the past two springs failing to come to terms on a new contract. Pittsburgh placed the franchise tag on Bell each time. The 26-year-old made over $12 million last season and is due $14.5 million this season if he signs his one-year tender by the weekend and the Steelers opt not to ask for a two-week roster exemption. He will lose about $850,000 for each game he misses.
The biggest issue for Bell’s teammates appears to be the lack of communication. There’s a sense of anger that he has intentionally left them in the dark, forcing them to answer for him. Bell’s agent Adisa Bakari was interviewed on SiriusXM NFL Radio on Wednesday and hinted at a concern Bell would be overworked this season by the Steelers, which could affect his earning potential when Bell reaches the open market in 2019. Bell’s 406 touches led the NFL in 2017.
Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert, who expressed disappointment on Monday when Bell’s locker remained empty, declined comment. Team spokesman Burt Lauten said the club would not conduct talks with Bakari through the media, adding, “If Adisa would like to talk further, he has the phone number to our offices.”
Now the Steelers find themselves turning from a three-time Pro Bowler to a second-year player in James Conner. The former Pitt star is in line to make his first NFL start on Sunday, and he’s not too concerned about the circumstances that made it happen.
“I’ve got the opportunity to play the game again,” said Conner, who endured a highly public battle with cancer during his college career. “Any time I can play football, I don’t take it for granted. I’ve got an opportunity for Sunday and I can’t wait for it.”
What the Steelers can wait for at this point is Bell to join them. He can still technically accrue a full year of service time if he reports by Week 10.
“At some point and you’re like, All right, if you don’t want to be here, it is what it is, hold out for 10 weeks,” Pouncey said.