When the Steelers were squeezing running back Le'Veon Bell to show up for camp and otherwise trying to make him look greedy or unreasonable as the 2017 season approached, I defended him. It’s hard to defend him in the aftermath of his comments from Thursday.
By talking about what he would or wouldn’t do if tagged again by the Steelers for the 2018 season, Bell necessarily is creating a distraction for a team that will have its hands full with the Jaguars on Sunday, and that could have up to two more games to play.
Apart from the fact that he should have said “I’m only focused on the next game,” a threat to sit out next season or retire if tagged for a second time is hollow and meaningless. By rule, he’d be entitled to more than $14.5 million under the tag in 2018, which dramatically exceeds the top end of the running back market. Then, come 2019, the Steelers would have to tender him at the quarterback level if they hope to restrict his rights — which they won’t do.
Worst-case scenario under the tag in 2018 would be more than $26 million earned over two seasons, plus a shot at the open market in 2019.
Apart from the distraction that Bell creates for the team is the very real question of whether he’s thinking too much about the fact that, as of Sunday, he’ll be playing extra games (and exposing his body to extra risk) for not that much extra money.
During the season, Bell’s weekly paychecks exceeded $711,000. Under the CBA, Sunday’s game is worth $28,000 per player. The next round pays out $51,000 each. And the Super Bowl share was $56,000 for every player on the losing team, $112,000 for the winning team.
So even if the Steelers win it all, Bell will be incurring injury risk for three games at a total of $191,000 — a fraction of what he was paid per week during the regular season.
Given that the prohibition on negotiating a long-term deal with a franchise-tagged player expires at the end of the regular season, a far more meaningful threat from Bell would be to refuse to play on Sunday if the Steelers don’t sign him to a long-term deal immediately. That would get their attention a lot more effectively than an implausible vow to not play at all in 2018.