Despite the last-minute overtures, the cryptic emoji usage and the distant clamor of common sense, Le’Veon Bell will not play a down of NFL football in 2018.
In what amounts to the most significant rebuke of the league’s franchise tag structure since Pro Bowl defensive tackle and former No. 3 overall pick Sean Gilbert missed the 1997 season in order to avoid the one-year pact, Bell has decided to sacrifice a year of his flickering athletic prime in order to attain some semblance of long-term security on the free agent market.
His efforts have been hailed as both heroic and foolish, though most of the football world seems to believe that Bell will never recoup the money he lost—both via the franchise tag and the long-term deal he turned down before that.
Of course, Bell would not have dug his heels in so deeply if it was only about the money. Seemingly, one athlete from every generation decides to challenge the powers that be, and Bell tossed his hat into the ring just as a few backs around him were getting rewarded for their production in the passing game. From here, the question becomes: What kind of legacy will he leave behind, and did he embolden the stance of players who feel similarly slighted by a system that allows teams multiple avenues around offering their stars long-term security?
VRENTAS:What Is Le’Veon Bell’s Value?
Gilbert has said on many occasions that he does not regret his stance. His nephew, former Jets cornerback and future hall of famer Darrelle Revis, carried a similar torch. With a pair of gunslinger agent by his side, Revis was able to consistently capitalize on the team’s need for his services. Salary cap website Spotrac estimates he made more than $72 million in salary during his career, and more than $120 million in total cash value.
Bell’s situation is slightly more complicated. He has played all 16 games in a season just once in his career. He has twice been suspended for off-field issues and has somewhat of a lengthy injury history. He also plays running back, which is often considered the most hazardous position in football with the shortest lifespan. As game-changing, dual threat running backs continue to filter into the NFL—some without a first-round pedigree—teams may consider him a luxury item they can replicate by drafting in bulk.
While his time away was lampooned, one could also see Bell’s stance as admirable. When a player decides to swim against the NFL’s current, they are too often subject to a military-grade siege of anonymous barbs from those intent on keeping the power with ownership. His teammates took it a step further by attacking the running back’s character as part of an organized middle finger salute at the beginning of the season.
Through it all, Bell remained in the game’s orbit even if he was away from the field. He often posted encouraging messages to backup James Conner. An hour before his deadline to sign the franchise tender, Bell showed himself voting for Conner to make the Pro Bowl in 2018 on his Instagram stories—something Conner most certainly will do.
Conner’s bullish performance in 2018, which on many fronts has outpaced Bell’s in previous years, highlights both the Steelers’ ability to draft running backs and the outshined offensive line, which may have never gotten the adequate credit for hoisting Bell’s star in the first place.
It is yet another question teams will have to wrestle with as they decide what to think of a player who decided to embrace the nuclear option. What happens next may change the landscape for another generation of players. Or, it could reinforce the same machinations that so frustrated Bell in the first place.