Lawrence: Running Free

Le'Veon Bell's decision won't be forgotten, and in the end, he lost far more than he gained

Amy Lawrence
November 13, 2018 - 6:50 pm

USA Today Images


The unthinkable has happened. After months of speculation and rumor, tweets and predictions, Le'Veon Bell will skip the entire 2018 NFL season.

Stretching back to summer when he didn't report for training camp, the Steelers running back has been the number one topic of conversation and debate in football. When will he show up? How much money is he forfeiting? Can the team win without him? How do his teammates feel about Bell leaving them high and dry? What's the best way for him to handle his career? What is he posting on social media? WHERE was he spotted riding a jet ski? Over the last four months, we've asked questions with no real answers. Now, for better or worse, the most critical mystery is solved. Bell will not play football this year.

In the moments after the deadline passed to sign his contract, Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert released the following statement: "I want to confirm that Le’Veon Bell did not sign his Franchise Tender today and, as a result, he will not be eligible to play football during the 2018 season." Bell relinquishes $14.5 million in salary with his choice to stay away. Talk about unfathomable. It's the kind of money the average American wouldn't dream of leaving on the table. Inside the locker room, Steelers offensive lineman Ramon Foster said Bell was making "seven times what I make" as he vented his frustrations when Bell didn't show up Labor Day weekend. He's also giving up roughly $200,000 in health and retirement benefits because he won't get credit for this year of service.

All along, Bell has claimed he deserved to be paid more like a quarterback than a running back because of his versatility, the number of touches (and hits) he logs per season, and his importance to Pittsburgh's success. He indicated he's not willing to put his body on the line without the extra guaranteed money, that he needs to protect his long-term health and earnings power. Translation: he doesn't want to suffer a serious injury before he signed a fat contract. That's certainly his prerogative. And for awhile, he maintained his leverage. When the Steelers stumbled through the first month at 1-2-1 and sunk to the bottom of the AFC North, many pointed to Bell as the easy fix. The running back admitted to ESPN he was missing football and that he planned to play this season; he even confessed that he wanted to remain a Steeler beyond this winter. But he waited too long. While he stayed away, the team found its footing without him.

As crazy as it sounds, the Le'Veon Bell saga couldn't have worked out better for the Steelers. They're in the midst of a five-game win streak, and they've catapulted to the top of their division. It's still early, but they're in the running for a first-round bye in the playoffs. They haven't scored fewer than 23 points since Week 4 against Baltimore, and 52 points at home against Carolina provided a triumphant exclamation point right before the Bell deadline. Pittsburgh is soaring, and the guy who was supposed to serve as Bell's backup deserves a ton of credit. Through Week 10, James Conner is third in the league in rushing yards (771) and third in rushing touchdowns (10). Throw in his receiving yards (387), and he's already over a thousand yards from the line of scrimmage this year. Before he landed in concussion protocol against the Panthers, he rattled off a streak of four games with at least 120 total yards and a score. The Steelers’ backfield has barely missed a beat, and Conner says he's built to sustain all the work the offense wants to give him. With Bell out of the equation, the franchise was able to audition his replacement in real game situations, and Conner has impressed everyone who's watching, including Bell.

The AWOL running back recently cast his vote for Conner to appear in the Pro Bowl, and he's extremely supportive of Conner on Twitter. No doubt, his production pushed Bell to skip the entire season. Because why would the Steelers need to shell out quarterback money or even $14 million annually when another guy is generating similar numbers for a whole lot cheaper?? And why would Pittsburgh pay him as a superstar feature back if he's splitting time with Conner? There's no way the team would have benched Conner or relegated him to only a handful of touches per game. He's the guy happily doing everything that's asked of him. Is Bell extremely talented? Yes. Is he a game-changer? Absolutely. But he left a hole in the Steelers' backfield and forced them to fill it. Now that they have, Bell isn't worth the same investment, and he knows it. That's why his tune has changed dramatically since July when he vowed this would be the best season of his career.

Ironically, the Steelers found a way to give Bell what he wanted: fewer touches and less pounding on his body. Except he can no longer claim he's indispensable or irreplaceable and should be paid that way. Ultimately, the team's success without him doesn't serve his purpose. And so he wants out. He wants to play in another city for another franchise who may very well hand him an exorbitant contract. But the fact that he was willing to sacrifice an entire season in the prime of his career and leave so much money on the table, the fact that he walked away from his teammates to protect himself – it won't be forgotten inside football. Every athlete is called on to make sacrifices for the good of the team and his brothers in the locker room. Bell made it crystal clear where his priorities lie.

This high-stakes gamble by Bell may result in a fresh start, but he'll never get this year back. He just forfeited an entire season and more than $14 million in the prime of his career at a position with a relatively small window for success. Ultimately, he loses far more than he gains.

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.