Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Steelers May Regret Le'Veon Bell Contract Duel

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJuly 18, 2018

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell warms up before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Michael Wyke/Associated Press

The Steelers-Le'Veon Bell impasse sheds a light on the value of running backs, the Papa John's mess raises some tough questions for a few NFL big shots and players are starting to ask questions about their cut of the gambling wave.


1. The Steelers are Playing a Dangerous Game

There's a number that explains why Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell will likely miss training camp and hold out into the fall. That number is 255 million.

As in, $255 million. That is the amount each team received from the league as its share of $8 billion in total revenue, according to the Packers' financial report, as first pointed out by ESPN.com's Darren Rovell. The salary cap last year was $167 million. I'm terrible at math (subtract the one, carry the two) but that means if every owner paid their players salaries only from television revenue, which comprised most of the $8 billion windfall, they would still walk away with almost $90 million each.

That doesn't count the $75 beers and $80 T-shirts. Or parking. Or tickets. You get the picture.

Bell knows this. He knows that despite the fact that NFL players are well-paid, they aren't paid proportionally. He's taken a stand, and while his stand could cost him, it will cost the Steelers much more.

After the team and Bell failed to reach an agreement on a long-term deal Monday, Bell's agent told ESPN's Adam Schefter this is likely Bell's last year in Pittsburgh. Who knows if that will play out that way, but one thing is clear: The Steelers are playing a risky game of contract chicken, and they will regret it deeply if Bell does hold out this season, or if he leaves after it.

Bell opens up the Pittsburgh offense in a way that no other Steeler does, including Ben Roethlisberger. Antonio Brown faces double teams, but without Bell, he'd face a cadre of far more sophisticated defenses.

The way it is now, defenses are more scared of Bell than any other player on the roster. He can break a huge run, line up at receiver (and run routes like one) and block. According to Sports Illustrated, Bell has accounted for more than 30 percent of Pittsburgh's offense over the past two years. And ESPN notes that Bell's 7,996 yards through 62 regular-season games is the most by any NFL player through the same number of games since the 1970 merger. The next closest? Erick Dickerson at 7,842.

The common belief among many in the league is that Todd Gurley is now the best back in football. He's not. It's Bell.

And if Bell does sit out a chunk of this season, or is gone after 2018, the Steelers won't just miss him; they'll be crushed by it.


2. The RB Pay Gap

The Steelers aren't the only team that seems to take running backs for granted. Consider this from NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks:

Bucky Brooks @BuckyBrooks

The bias against RBs is real.. @LeVeonBell has been one of the most productive players in NFL history, yet his franchise tag and contract demands are lower than the APYs of Bradford ($20M), Tannehill ($19.25M), Keenum ($18M), Bortles ($18M) and Dalton ($16M).. Think about that🤔

For years, teams have told us that running backs have become devalued in the modern NFL, but we've seen them unlock some undeniably explosive offenses, from Bell with the Steelers to Gurley with the Rams to Zeke Elliott and the Cowboys and more.

Yes, the quarterbacks remain the stars of the NFL, but running backs aren't far behind.


3. Soup for the NFL Nerd's Soul

Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

It's always fun watching a player, especially a great one, talk shop about other players. Luckily, we get our fill in this breakdown video of the current NFL running back class by Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and former Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew.

Dickerson ranks Gurley first, followed by Bell and Elliott.

I'd still put Bell first, but who am I to question a Hall of Famer.


4. Happy Birthday, Barry

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

To put a bow on this whole running back discussion, the best to ever play the position, to me, is Jim Brown. He's also the best football player of all time.

But with Barry Sanders turning 50 this week, it would be unfair to not consider the former Lion in the same  company. Sanders was one of the few players in the modern era to dominate as a one-man offense.

In fact, an argument could be made that Sanders was the greatest one-man-band to ever play in the NFL.

The irony of Sanders is that while his footprint on the field was massive, off the field, he was the quietest superstar I ever encountered. But when he spoke, his words were powerful. Once, when I went to the Lions' complex to interview him, it took three days to get him to sit down. When he did, it was a wonderful interview.

We aren't likely to see that side of him much anymore, but we'll still be talking about his legacy (third all-time in rushing yards, sixth in yards from scrimmage, 10th in all-purpose yards) for another 50 years.


5. Papa John's Mess Raises Some Troubling Questions for NFL Power Brokers

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 01:  Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and John Schnatter attend the DirecTV Super Saturday Night at Pier 40 on February 1, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for DirecTV)
Rob Kim/Getty Images

I have a question about a question: Is it fair to ask Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former star Peyton Manning about their relationship with disgraced former Papa John's CEO John Schnatter?

I honestly don't know. You shouldn't be responsible for the actions of your friends or business partners. (If that were true, my friends would be responsible for that time we went to Las Vegas and I got in trouble because of Spock ears and hair gel.)

But, to get back to serious matters, Manning and Jones had extensive business relationships with Schnatter, who just resigned as CEO of the pizza chain after using a racial slur on a conference call. He also spoke in graphic terms about the lynching of blacks in Indiana, where he was raised.

Since then, neither Manning nor Jones have said much about the matter. Mind you, these weren't just postgame photo buddies. Manning owned a stake in 31 Papa John's franchises before he sold them earlier this year. And Jones still owns either all, or part, of 120 franchises.

While hearing from both would be good, Manning can at least make the argument that he isn't part of the league or pizza chain anymore. Jones can't.

Is the Cowboys owner keeping his interest in the franchises? What does he think about what Schnatter said? What does he think about the Falcons, Seahawks and other franchises across many sports ending their relationship with Papa John's?

Jones was emphatic in his praise of Schnatter during a radio interview only eight months ago:

"The facts are that I've spent my life, the last 28 to 30 years of my life, being knee-deep and immersed in anything and everything I can do for the Cowboys and through that the NFL," Jones said on 105.3 The Fan, according to Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith. "On the other hand, I am a joint owner of the businesses of 120 Papa John's stores here in Texas. And John Schnatter is one of the great Americans. He's the story of America. He started off in his dad's bar just doing a pizza with a little oven or microwave, and he's built that thing into one of the greatest businesses. Papa John's was named by all of the people that look at the NFL, Papa John's was named as the product most associated with the NFL, and it was named that a year ago by a survey of all of our viewers. So he is quite an American story."

The last week or so leaves me wondering if Jones still thinks Schnatter is "one of the great Americans."

That may not be fair to ask, but then again, maybe it would be unfair not to ask.


6. Who Knew Jay Cutler Had it in Him?

SANTA MONICA, CA - JANUARY 20:  Actress Kristin Cavallari (L) and NFL quartertback  Jay Cutler attend the Opening Night Of Cirque du Soleil's 'OVO' at the Santa Monica Pier on January 20, 2012 in Santa Monica, California.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Get
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Credit reality show star Kristin Cavallari for pulling off two unexpected feats. One, for creating a really fun show to watch. And two, for humanizing her husband, former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, whose image, in the football sense, was a demolition site thanks to a career as one of the more overrated disappointments to play the position.

In the program, Very Cavallari, Cutler shows humor and depth that I didn't know he possessed. This is often the case with the athletes that we follow. The ones some of us think are bad guys are often good dudes, and some of the players we think are good dudes aren't really so benevolent.

Cutler should consider a career in acting. I'm not kidding.

He's certainly couldn't be much worse than Ben Affleck in many of his roles.


7. Gambling Has Players' Attention

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

We know sports gambling is now legal. Everyone from fans to NFL teams to the league office has spoken on it. But we haven't heard from the players, until now.

"There are serious consequences, particularly for the athletes," said Casey Schwab, vice president of business and legal affairs for the NFLPA, according to ESPN.com's David Purdum. "Because of those consequences, the athlete's voice must be heard, particularly as we contemplate sports betting in the country."

Translation: Players still want a huge say in all of this.

As they should. The state of New Jersey alone has made $1 million a day since gambling became legal, according to Ben Fawkes of ESPN.com.

Schwab said the main concern of all the leagues is preserving the privacy of players and how the public perceives them. What is the "price tag," as Schwab calls it, to knowing where a player is visiting in free agency? What is the value associated with someone's pain threshold?

That may all be true. Also in play is good, old-fashioned cash.

I know from speaking privately to players that one of their biggest concerns is the billions generated from legal gambling goes to everyone else but them.

One said he felt players got cheated during the early days of fantasy football, and as the game grew in popularity, players weren't properly compensated for the use of their likenesses by fantasy shows and websites.

Now, some players feel the same could happen with legal gambling.

Just what we need: a potential new wedge between the players and the league.


8. Are You Kidding Me?

Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

Recently, an anti-bullying organization named Boo2Bullying sent me an email saying it had named Richie Incognito as its first national ambassador. I thought it was a prank.

I tweeted about it. Other news organizations saw the tweet and did stories on it. All the while, a part of me still thought it was a huge prank. But I emailed the organization, and it sai- nope, not a prank.

Boo2Bullying does admirable work. It's a great societal asset. Yet appointing Incognito, who famously harassed a teammate when he played for the Dolphins, as an anti-bullying ambassador is like making Thanos head of the Avengers.

There's no need to go over Incognito's background. It's well known and horrible.

All of this is to say there are better choices for an anti-bullying campaign than Incognito. Lots of them.


9. Raw Quickness

Taylor Gabriel @TGdadon1


Running a drill is one thing. Translating it into real football is a different thing.

But if a recent video of Bears wide receiver Taylor Gabriel running a quickness drill is any indication, he seems to have a good chance at transforming the Bears offense into a far more explosive unit than the one that took the field last season. Keep an eye on Gabriel, who could be one of the league's next explosive wide receivers.


10. Summertime, and the GOAT Is Livin' Easy

You might not have seen the throw Aaron Rodgers made at a golf tournament recently. If you didn't, you need to watch it, because it's spectacular.

NBCSAuthentic @NBCSAuthentic

Aaron Rodgers to the man going full send off the boat 💦 https://t.co/6fN8ZKxapl

A few items of note on the throw:

• It was a far more difficult pass than it appears. Most quarterbacks would overthrow the "receiver" or the football would ping off the side of the stern or the aft or the bow or whatever it's called.

• Without any warm-up, Rodgers' throw is effortless—in the middle of the offseason.

• There are probably only two or three quarterbacks in football who could make that throw: Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Rodgers.

• The placement of the football is stunning. Some armchair quarterbacks may say Rodgers threw it too far left. But watch his shoulders and eyes before he makes the pass. You can see where he's aiming. He wanted the dude to jump off the boat.

It all serves as a reminder, again, of why Rodgers is the best. Even when he's just toying with people.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.