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Earl Thomas, Le'Veon Bell Situations Show Being Cheap Can Be Expensive

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 2, 2018

Seattle Seahawks defensive back Earl Thomas (29) leaves the field after breaking his leg against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. The Seahawks won 20-17. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Earl Thomas became the bad guy on Sunday afternoon.

Thomas, future Hall of Famer, living Seahawks legend and the last surviving member of the Legion of Boom, fractured his leg in a dreary victory over the Cardinals after an offseason-long holdout and a month of skipping practices in pursuit of a trade. Leaving the field for the last time in a Seahawks uniform, he gave his own bench the middle finger in a classic wrestling heel turn.

Just in case flipping the bird did not solidify Thomas' bad-boy status, the NFL's most notorious conscientious objector joined the conversation when Seahawks teammate Bobby Wagner expressed his support for Thomas on Instagram.

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Le’Veon Bell's willing to be the “bad guy” so all NFL players get theirs 👀 https://t.co/jGTAYHS0bV

Yes, that's the real Le'Veon Bell, volunteering to be "the 'bad guy' for ALL of us."

Bell is the ultimate NFL bad guy, the holdout whose own teammates turned on him a few weeks ago, the running back who is sitting at home while his Steelers are reeling. According to ESPN reports, Bell plans to end his holdout and return to the Steelers during their Week 7 bye, which is a little like telling a starving man that you'll swing by with some sandwiches in about three weeks.

Of course, you may consider Thomas and Bell the good guys, the ones fighting football tyranny for higher wages and greater control over their careers, even if that means turning their noses up at 10-figure salaries or putting off their return-to-work start date until the middle of leafing season.

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You're probably not in the mood for another lecture about labor relations and revenue percentages, or a plea to sympathize with the financial plights of football players making more money in a year than you will ever see, any more than you want to think about the impressionable children who saw their first middle finger on Sunday.

Let's talk about business instead.

NFL contract disputes are not pro wrestling. There are no good guys or bad guys, and they should not be thought of in terms of wins and losses. But there are good business practices and bad ones, and the Seahawks and Steelers have been very bad in the Thomas and Bell situations.

When teams do business badly, everyone loses: the team, the player, the fans.

The Seahawks should have seen Thomas' displeasure coming months ago. They traded away Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett, handed Kam Chancellor his gold retirement watch and plunged the franchise into a rebuilding phase. Did they really think Thomas would be happy as a one-year lame-duck leftover?

Earl Thomas has made no secret about his desire to join his former Legion of Boom teammates in leaving the Seahawks.
Earl Thomas has made no secret about his desire to join his former Legion of Boom teammates in leaving the Seahawks.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Thomas isn't some like-it-or-lump-it workaday employee. He's as distinguished as veterans come in any type of organization, the kind of leader who deserves, if not preferential treatment, straight answers and the chance to voice his opinion.

The Seahawks could have traded Thomas during the Legion of Boom purge, but they got finicky about the compensation. They insisted upon a second-round pick, per ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter's reports, but not the Cowboys' second-round pick, because they didn't want to face Thomas in Week 3. (What does a rebuilding team care about one early-season game? Who knows?)

The Seahawks have plenty of cap space in 2019 and 2020 and could have signed Thomas to an extension if they really valued him as a mentor and link to Super Bowls past. They may have gotten him to buy in to his new camp counselor role with a little bit of money and some honest communication. And when Thomas began skipping practice and showing up on Sundays, they could have benched him—not just to exert their authority, but to protect a potential trade commodity.

The Seahawks did none of those things. Now they are without Thomas or the rebuilding blocks he could have fetched in a trade. And one of the greatest players in team history left the stage twirling his moustache like a comic book baddie.

Speaking of teams that backed themselves into a corner, the Steelers cannot run the ball without Bell, and it's one of the things ruining their season.

The Steelers rushed 11 times for 19 yards in their Sunday night loss to the Ravens. They rushed 13 times for 33 yards in their Week 2 loss to the Chiefs. Bell backup James Conner rushed for 135 yards in the season opener (plus a fourth-quarter fumble everyone pretended to not notice when writing "Le'Veon Who?" headlines) but has rushed for 97 yards and 3.03 yards per carry in three games since.

Like the Seahawks, the Steelers are shopping their disgruntled superstar, but they appear to be asking for too much, too late. Having applied back-to-back franchise tags on Bell, the Steelers are now tangled in the red tape they used to snare him. The Week 7 report date likely ends the trade efforts: The Steelers will get 10 weeks of Bell and hope they aren't 1-4-1 when they start.

The Steelers tried to sign Bell in the summer, floating some impressive-sounding contract offers in the media, but it wasn't enough. They could have removed the franchise tag, spent their $14.5 million elsewhere and moved on. They could have taken the temperature of their locker room, realized an every-man-for-himself vibe was brewing, and factored that into their decision. They could have done whatever the Giants and Rams did to smooth the Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald negotiations. (Talking to the players like adults apparently helped). 

Le'Veon Bell's contract impasse with the Steelers will cost him millions and Steelers untold games this season.
Le'Veon Bell's contract impasse with the Steelers will cost him millions and Steelers untold games this season.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Instead, the Steelers and Bell both dug in, and common sense flew out the window when Bell started sacrificing weekly game checks for a future payday that may never match the Steelers' summer offer.

The Seahawks and Steelers thought they were making shrewd business decisions. The Steelers were using the franchise tag as a pay-as-you-go system at a position where players are worked hard and burn out young. The Seahawks mixed Moneyball with an old-school culture change when they traded away Thomas' often-prickly peers, though they chose for unclear reasons not to include him in the fire sale.

But that pennywise approach to roster management backfired when the Seahawks and Steelers lost sight of the fact that players are people. Just because a contract gives an organization the leverage to do what it wants doesn't mean it's the wise thing to do. Hurt feelings and bad blood can be costly in ways that aren't worth it, especially when it comes to players like Thomas and Bell.

Now the Seahawks are a mediocre team without its best defensive player, and both teammates and fans have a sour taste in their mouths. The Steelers left themselves with no real exit strategy from the Bell situation, allowing Bell to dictate the time and place of his return.

Heck, even the Raiders managed to get high draft picks out of their Khalil Mack fiasco. The Seahawks and Steelers bungled so badly that they made Jon Gruden look smart.

So vilify Bell if you like, pretend to be aghast that Thomas didn't act like Gandhi after breaking his leg, take a pro-player or pro-management stance and get more emotionally investment in financial squabbles than in the actual games. But if the Seahawks and Steelers handled their affairs properly, Thomas would have suited up for a contender this year, Bell would be thrilling us somewhere each Sunday as the NFL's highest-paid running back, both teams would either be better or better prepared to rebuild, and a fun NFL season would be just a little more fun.

It's just good business sense. Nothing philosophical. And nothing personal.

          

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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