Le'Veon Bell must have been hoping he would have an Emmitt Smith-style holdout.
Smith held out of Cowboys training camp for a new contract after winning his second straight rushing title and the first of three Super Bowl rings in January 1993. The Cowboys played hardball and tried to replace the future Hall of Famer and all-time rushing leader with a fourth-round rookie named Derrick Lassic. They even force-fed Lassic the ball when Smith skipped the first two games of the regular season, as if to prove a point.
The Cowboys proved a point, all right. They scored a total of 26 points in back-to-back losses. Charles Haley blew his stack in the locker room after the second loss, shouting, "We're never gonna win with this f--king rookie!"
Jerry Jones then flew to Atlanta personally to bring Smith back to the Cowboys and make him the NFL's highest-paid running back for the princely '90s sum of $13.6 million over four years.
"I'm glad you're getting this, Emmitt," Jones said at the post-signing press conference. "Are you happy?"
"Very much," Smith replied.
Maybe if Bell had returned after two weeks, when the Steelers were 0-1-1 and James Conner was coming off a bad game in the Chiefs loss, the story of his 2018 season would be all paychecks and obsequiously purring employers.
But Bell decided to hold out past the point of diminishing returns and common sense.
So instead of a Haley trashing his replacement and pounding the lockers for his return, Bell's teammates have moved on.
"I love playing with Conner," left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I don't have anything to say about Le'Veon. I don't even know what shape he is in right now."
Instead of a Jones contritely asking him if he wants an extra pillow to rest his contract-signing hand upon, Bell has Mike Tomlin scoffing at his absence by saying, "We need volunteers, not hostages."
Instead of sympathetic columnists (like me) and talk-show personalities beating our "pay-the-man" tom-toms for him, Bell has been rendered so irrelevant for so many weeks that he is now the butt of Rob Riggle skits.
Instead of a triumph for himself and future franchise-tag objectors, Bell has trapped himself in the most disastrous holdout in NFL history.
He has cost himself $855,529 per week during his 10-week holdout. That's $8.6 million in sunk earnings and counting. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which some future contract makes up for the money he has passed up this season.
Sure, Bell might have risked his future earning potential with an injury. That argument made sense in training camp, and maybe the first game check or two was worth the risk-reward ratio. But giving up $8.6 million today to avoid the risk of losing future earnings is like cutting off your foot to prevent an ingrown toenail. Or as economic experts like to say: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
But wait: It gets worse for Bell. Not only has Conner stepped in for the Steelers and provided nearly identical production to Bell for less than 10 percent of the cost...
- The Broncos stuck an old Terrell Davis jersey on undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay, and Lindsay instantly became the AFC's third-leading rusher. (Conner leads the conference.)
- The Patriots solved an injury crunch at running back by sliding wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson into the I-formation with little drop-off in production.
- The Falcons replaced the injured Devonta Freeman—one of the NFL's highest-paid running backs—with a platoon of Tevin Coleman and rookie Ito Smith, who have combined for 880 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns.
- The 49ers replaced injured free agent Jerick McKinnon (who signed a four-year, $30-million deal in the offseason) with undrafted sophomore Matt Breida, who ranks fourth in the NFC in rushing and averages 5.5 yards per carry.
It's as if the entire NFL rose up to prove the point that running back talent is plentiful and overpaying for even a great one is ill-advised. There will be bidders for Bell's services in 2019, but few will back up the money truck after seeing how easily Bell (and Freeman, and McKinnon) was replaced.
Bell has passed up $8.6 million and counting to ride his Jet Ski and watch the market for his services crash.
Extending the holdout this long has been a tragic miscalculation by both Bell and his agent, who—based on Jesse Washington's profile in The Undefeated—appears to be using Bell's contract to advance a philosophical/sociopolitical cause, which, while laudable, is a little too broad to be shouldered by one client.
Things were different in Emmitt Smith's time. Running backs didn't grow on trees back then. Or if they did, NFL teams did not yet know how easy they were to pluck.
Before Smith, Eric Dickerson set the gold standard for running back contract disputes. He held out from the Rams for two games in 1985. Two years later he made it clear he was unhappy with his contract, prompting the Rams to engineer an epic trade that landed him with the Colts as the NFL's highest-paid running back. Then he held out of Colts camp until the team suspended him for six games (Dickerson holdouts always came with a side of public nastiness), but the Colts relented during a poor season and upped Dickerson's earnings even further.
The Cowboys, Rams and Colts didn't have a Conner on their bench, because NFL benches were not full of Conner/Lindsay/Breida types and the NFL was more run-oriented back then, so they relented and paid their star running backs. The Steelers, hamstrung by the rules of the franchise tag, couldn't negotiate a new deal during the season even if Conner didn't become the feel-good story of the season. That makes Bell's continued absence even more inexplicable.
No list of disastrous holdouts is complete without at least a mention of JaMarcus Russell. The Raiders' first-round selection in 2007 held out through his entire rookie training camp before signing a deal with about $31 million in guarantees at the start of that season.
Russell turned out to have weight and general workplace-readiness issues; in retrospect, showing up for camp on time probably would not have saved his career. From Russell's standpoint, holding out for the maximum dollar amount before anyone saw him at work was the smartest possible decision.
That's how bad the Bell situation has become: Russell looks good by comparison.
He'll have to salvage what he can from this season: mending fences with teammates, contributing what he can to the Steelers' playoff run, re-establishing himself as someone who deserves to be the NFL's highest-paid running back, convincing potential employers that paying him top dollar makes more sense than cobbling together a cost-effective committee of mid-draft rookies and converted wide receivers.
With Conner playing so well, the Steelers might even deactivate Bell, at least when he first returns, in the name of unity and continuity. Had he ended his holdout at the start of the season, or even in Week 2, all would be long forgiven. Now Bell faces an uncertain welcome.
That's a long way from Emmitt getting Jerrah to bow before him or Dickerson making the Rams and Colts cry uncle. It's a lot more like what happened with John Riggins in 1981.
Riggins held out for the entire 1980 season in a bitter contract dispute with the Redskins. It was an ugly stalemate, with the NFLPA filing a grievance and many of the fans of that era turning on the bruising rusher because fans in those days were told free agency was evil and holdouts like Riggins were practically grave robbers.
Then Riggins suddenly showed up for minicamp in 1981, with no guarantee of a raise from his $350,000 annual salary.
"I'm bored, broke and back," the future Hall of Famer famously said. He added that he took some classes at the University of Kansas during his time off.
"I got a 'B' in my money management class, but then I didn't have any to manage," he said.
Riggins lost the grievance, never got his 1980 money back, and ended up signing a contract not too different from his pre-1980 deal. But at least he and the Redskins enjoyed their greatest seasons after the dispute. Unless they come together for a Super Bowl run this year, Bell and the Steelers won't even have that.
Bell won't be broke when he returns, and he's probably not bored. But this catastrophe of a holdout was a master's class in money management and holdout history. And Bell paid some steep tuition.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @MikeTanier.