After tweeting an emoji of a thinking man wearing a monocle on Sunday, holdout running back Le’Veon Bell clarified that he was just remarking on the oddity of the Steelers and Browns finishing in a tie in the season opener.
Many, however, assumed it was a commentary on the performance of his replacement, second-year back James Conner, who carried the ball 31 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Cleveland. He also caught five passes for 57 yards. What Bell saw there may have been as unexpected as the final score.
Week One overreactions are common, and it will be a popular assumption that Bell’s leverage will suffer as his backup churns out the kind of stat lines that made Bell one of the NFL’s premier running backs in the first place. The truth is slightly more complicated, even if the Steelers use this as an opportunity to stomp on the flimsiness of their star back’s current situation. After last week’s locker room onslaught by teammates, it’s clear the Steelers are not afraid to send a coordinated message when warranted.
Conner is smooth enough in the passing game, despite a few issues, and like Bell has a subtle explosiveness at the end of his carries that almost always seems to net him the extra yard. On Sunday he turned several dead-in-the-water situations into long gains and was comfortable enough when split out wide. Projecting the running back as a legitimate receiving threat within the first 15 yards is critical to the success of Pittsburgh’s offense.
But the Steelers should be wary of the notion that they have a one-for-one swap and can continue to ignore Bell’s plan to save his body for free agency. In a weird way, Sunday’s game should have been a signal to Bell that he can return immediately with less stress than he's experienced in previous seasons. After failing to get the pay raise he desired (or, depending on how you look at it, turning down a hollow long-term deal), he next wanted protection from what would inevitably be a grueling workload in what is expected to be his final year in Pittsburgh. Conner showed he’s more than capable of effectively cutting Bell’s workload in half. Two players who run like that are better than one.
Now that another back has emerged behind an accomplished offensive line, the Steelers have a chance to bulldoze through the season relieved of one of their most pressing fears from the previous three years: that an injury to the heavily-used Bell would derail the offense's rhythm in a playoff run. Of course, that would involve an epic concession by Bell at a time when many would assume he’d only be returning because he’s afraid of getting Wally Pipp’ed.
That’s the fallout from Sunday’s game that remains to be seen. The impasse has always been about perception—what the Steelers feel they can do without Bell, and what Bell thinks he means to the Steelers—and after one week there’s a good chance they close out the first set of NFL games with the league’s leading rusher. Does Bell see anything that makes him miss the field? That makes him wonder if his place on the team is truly in peril? That forces him to consider how the Steelers offense uniquely helps create so many of the opportunities he’s had in the passing game?
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Does he reconsider the massive gamble he’s undertaking, which, if carried out fully, could cost him millions of dollars, assuming teams see a difference between his actual age (26) and his mileage in NFL years? Does he start to wonder if the perception he’s created about himself will end up affecting him in free agency?
It’s healthy to have these types of questions after one small window into life in Pittsburgh without Le’Veon Bell. But make no mistake, another two or three weeks like this, and Bell’s world suddenly gets very complicated.
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