Imagine for a moment you are Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
Your second-best offensive player, absent for all of training camp and the first four miserable games of the season, has finally professed his desire to return to football. Le’Veon Bell plans on being with the team beyond this season despite some very clear language to the contrary during a contractual slap-fight this summer. He maintained that he could not make financial sense out of withstanding another 400 touches this season, and plans to walk into the front door of the building three weeks from now during the bye.
Do you care if his key card even works?
You have expertly tap-danced around crises for more than a decade now and have only missed the playoffs three times. This, despite having a quarterback who is not the extension-of-management type leader that other coaches enjoy, and despite your best offensive player marred in a perpetual, passive-aggressive meltdown. You’ve watched your locker room organize and attack Bell. You have a running back—James Conner—who, despite cooling down after a monstrous 135-yard debut, is close to Bell’s pace in terms of yards per carry out of the shotgun. You operate out of the shotgun 80% of the time.
Like the rest of us, you understand the reasoning behind Bell’s holdout. Just look at Earl Thomas. Bell sees a closing financial window and wants to maximize what will likely be the last long-term offer he’ll ever see. You know you were going to run him 400 times, and will probably get damn near 200 if he comes back with the season on the line.
But this is not about common sense to you. It’s about crafting a message and directing a collective attitude in the locker room. Do you continue sending the message that talent trumps all, and allow Bell to glide back into his starting role because the team is an offensive mess? That would jibe with previous decisions, like allowing Ben Roethlisberger to complain about draft picks and threaten retirement without any repercussion. Or, not suspending Antonio Brown for skipping a day of work after a loss.
The alternative could drastically alter the course of your season. Clearly, positing the Steelers against the rest of the world, making the media and the “haters” and the rest of the talking heads the enemy has not been working. Brown and Roethlisberger are not in sync. The defense was bulled over so quickly during their last loss, that the disparity in run/pass play calls led to the lowest rushing output at home—19 yards—since the 1950s. Does adding a player that has clearly upset a majority of your locker room make things better?
Are you tempted to lower your asking price, since no one—Bell included—thinks a team would be insane enough to give up a second-round pick and a talented asset for a half-season rental? Do you wonder if it’s more effective to finally plant your foot down and conjure up some fiery speech about “brotherhood” and “wanting to be here?” Could that, and some offensive adjustments, be as galvanizing amid this rocky season as forcing Bell back into the lineup without much assurance that he’s in functional football shape?
Your history, and the history of the Steelers, suggests that Bell will be back and in the Pittsburgh lineup by the NFL’s halfway point. No team is better at internalizing conflict and moving on. You hope that this is just a chapter in a redemption story. Though, you’ll wonder about long-term health and stability. What does taking him back really mean?