After two years of stubbornness, passive-aggressive posturing and playing chicken like hot-rod-driving greasers in a 1950s movie, the Steelers and Le'Veon Bell finally have reached the edge of the cliff.
The Steelers are preparing for life without Bell, at least for the season opener, and probably much longer.
Bell still has not signed his franchise tender or reported for work, and he isn't expected to do so anytime soon, according to ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler. Consequently, the Steelers have been prepping backup James Conner for a starting role and talking him up for weeks. Even if Bell returns to the team five minutes after you read this, there likely won't be enough practice time to work him into Sunday's game plan against the Browns. And with Bell's agent hinting on SiriusXM NFL Radio (via PennLive.com's Jacob Klinger) that his client will hold out well into the season, don't expect Bell to show up five minutes after you read this.
After simmering for weeks, the situation went supernova Wednesday afternoon, when Steelers teammates—offensive linemen in particular—lashed out at the absent running back. Maurkice Pouncey said Bell needs to "man up," per NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala. Ramon Foster told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Bell "doesn't give a damn." So on the eve of the season, the Steelers stand united against one of their most important players.
This whole situation should have been avoided, and to be fair, there has been plenty of obstinacy on both sides. But the Steelers are the ones risking a Super Bowl in the name of their fiscal policy.
Other teams and players at odds this summer were wise enough to hit the brakes just before plunging off the cliff. The Rams and Aaron Donald came to terms with a week to spare. The Raiders bollocksed the Khalil Mack situation, but they at least found an exit strategy that netted them some value and dignity. The Giants, the oldest of the old-school organizations, somehow turned Odell Beckham Jr.'s contract negotiations from an anticipated migraine into a pep rally.
Yet the Bell situation just keeps getting worse, largely because the Steelers didn't see a problem.
When it comes to Bell, the pay-as-you-go franchise tag policy works for the Steelers. They paid Bell $12.1 million last year with zero guarantees for this year. They are slated to pay him $14.5 million this year with zero guarantees for next year. If Bell tears an ACL or wears down from another 400-touch workload, the Steelers have no future cash or cap obligations committed to him.
Pittsburgh theoretically could tag Bell for a third straight year next offseason, preventing him from negotiating market value for his services at any time in his seven-year NFL career. That's why Bell isn't bluffing in this year's game of chicken. Acrimony and holdout threats are the only leverage he has for both this year and next.
The Steelers reportedly made a five-year, $70 million offer to Bell right before the franchise-tag negotiation deadline in July, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The broad strokes of the deal sounded generous, which is why the Steelers made sure we heard them. The offer included $33 million in full guarantees, which is high for a running back but only a little more than a third of what Mack just received.
The Steelers' offer looked fair, but "fair" is relative. Because running back careers are so short, the next long-term deal Bell signs will be the last. When that deal expires, he'll be (at best) Adrian Peterson, singing for his supper on incentive-laden one-year contracts.
Bell reportedly wants Antonio Brown-esque money; according to Kinkhabwala, something in the range of $17 million annually. He reportedly wants to be paid as much as a top running back and mid-tier wide receiver combined, according to former teammate Ike Taylor (via NFL Network's Mike Garafolo).
Those expectations sound unrealistic, but the last week of megadeals has redefined what is realistic. In a market where defensive linemen are paid like franchise quarterbacks, offering Bell—a high-impact superstar in the Donald-Mack-Beckham class—a deal that transcends the running back pay scale makes as much sense as, say, alienating him until he skips the first half of the year.
His teammates may not want to hear it right now, but Bell cannot afford to settle for a dime less than the most he can possibly get. And if any of the linemen who are grumbling eventually wind up on the franchise-tag merry-go-round, they may find themselves making the same tough decisions. The Steelers never veer from their budget philosophy, even when a Super Bowl window is closing and they are forced to start the season without one of their three most important players.
Conner is a quality backup coming off a strong preseason, and the Steelers are 14-2 against the Browns since 2010. Pittsburgh hasn't lost to Cleveland since 2014. If there's one team the Steelers can beat while Bell watches from a South Florida condo, it's the one they face Sunday.
But while he's a great guy to root for and is worth adding to your fantasy team, Conner is not Bell. And the Browns don't appear to be the same old Browns. The Steelers are taking a risk Sunday. And the deeper into the season Bell's holdout lingers, the greater that risk gets.
There's no easy solution for the Steelers right now. Once the July deadline passed for negotiations, Bell's $14.5 million salary was locked in for this season. The organization is not allowed to make new offers, and a Mack-style trade is both unlikely and a generally terrible idea.
All the Steelers can do is leave the door open, make the extra phone call and blow as much sunshine Bell's way as they can to make him feel needed, wanted and valued. That tactic proved shockingly effective in the Beckham negotiations, while positive vibes and open lines of communication may have played a role in the Donald deal as well, according to Peter Schrager of FoxSports.com. (Mack...not so much.)
However, the Steelers don't believe in that touchy-feely stuff. Publicly, they've stuck to the stuffy, patriarchal script of being "disappointed" by Bell's absence. The Steelers public relations department was icy in response to the radio remarks from Bell's agent Wednesday. Then came the offensive line uprising, which took us well past the point of flowers-and-chocolates tactics.
While the Steelers risk the 2018 season, Bell's risk is not insubstantial. There's the $855,000 per game he is due to forfeit, the esteem of some teammates, some likely endorsements in a management-friendly media market, the chance he is labeled a me-first player with some lingering off-field concerns and a reputation that could scare future suitors away from a 27-year old running back.
Bell believes it's worth sacrificing money in the bank for money in the future, just as the Steelers are willing to gamble that Conner is good enough to keep them in the Super Bowl picture. Chicken is a two-person game.
It is also a game with no real winner (except perhaps Conner). Bell loses money, the Steelers lose his services, fans miss opportunities to watch one of the game's biggest stars, fantasy football rosters are thrown into chaos, and the NFL itself loses the chance to promote a player who can sell a lot of tickets and jerseys.
When it comes to playing chicken, "losing" actually means making the smart decision that keeps both participants alive. No one is flinching in Pittsburgh.
Let's hope someone does before both Bell and the Steelers wreck their seasons.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.