Something strange seems to be happening when it comes to the Steelers and running back Le'Veon Bell, as his final reporting deadline for 2018 approaches. And it could be that the Steelers are trying, in not so subtle fashion, to persuade Bell not to show up at all this year.
That’s the only way to explain the sudden emergence of a report from NFL Network — owned directly by the league and partially by the Steelers — that Bell would be eligible for the quarterback franchise tender in 2019, regardless of whether he signs his franchise tender in order to get contractual credit for 2018.
First, the language of the labor deal supports a plausible argument that, if Bell doesn’t play in 2018, his status would be tolled by a year. Second, the NFL and its teams aren’t in the habit of caving preemptively on plausible arguments that could be made within the confines of a formal grievance. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Bell’s camp was under the clear impression when his regular-season holdout began in September that he had to show up by the Tuesday after Week 10 in order to force the Steelers to use the quarterback franchise tender, if he were tagged again in 2019.
So why would the Steelers and/or the league concede this important point now, a week before Bell’s poop-or-get-off-the-pot deadline for 2018? The logical explanation is that the Steelers simply don’t want him to show up, and that this is their way of sending a clear message that, if he doesn’t show up, they won’t apply the franchise tag again in 2019.
Of course, if he doesn’t show up, the Steelers and the league wouldn’t be prevented from arguing that the 2018 tender applies in 2019. For now, though, the objective could be to get him to not show up, which would allow the Steelers to save nearly $6 million, to avoid the distractions inherent to bringing Bell back into the fold, and to not permit him to be signed by a team like the Ravens or the Patriots if the Steelers were to rescind the franchise tender, making Bell a free agent.
There’s no other reasonable explanation for the league’s decision to use its media platform as a megaphone for the notion that the Steelers, as a practical matter, can’t use the franchise tag on Bell again in 2019. The league isn’t in the business of surrendering potentially valid legal arguments under the CBA, and the league definitely isn’t in the business of permitting its in-house media conglomerate to tip the league’s hand, which is one of the very real benefits of the NFL and its teams owning the media conglomerate that covers the NFL and its teams. It seems that the Steelers simply want Bell to choose not to show up in 2018, and if he believes that he’ll have a straight shot to the open market in March without incurring any injury risk this season, why wouldn’t he?
Even if, come February, the Steelers tag him again and the NFL argues that the amount is $14.54 million, not the quarterback tender.
For more on this, check out Wednesday’s #PFTPM podcast.