Just for a minute, go back two months to the day Steelers offensive linemen ripped Le’Veon Bell for not reporting.
While national media came down hard on the linemen for getting into Bell’s business, some of us were maintaining that Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster were right, and that Bell must report immediately and make amends before time made it more difficult.
Apparently, though, the point of no return has been breached. Reports say Bell won’t show up by Tuesday afternoon, the deadline if he wants to play this season. And that’s a shame, because I don’t think that was his intention when he set out.
Steelers’ running back Le’Veon Bell is unlikely to report to the team by Tuesday’s deadline, which would make him ineligible to play the rest of this season, multiple league sources tell ESPN.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 11, 2018
I believe Bell wanted to return, but that each passed landmark, with the continuing success of James Conner and the team, made the necessary face-to-faces that much more difficult for him to address.
Bell may be brave when carrying a ball through opposing defenses, but he appears cowardly when he needed to instead suck it up and do what needed to be done.
Not that he had any reason for such cowardice. The line would embrace him; Mike Tomlin would embrace him; so would Conner, who speaks so highly and humbly of Bell at every turn. It would’ve been awkward, sure, but do-able, and necessary, both for Bell and the team.
There’s even a way for Bell to report and still fix what’s broken and caused his year-long standoff in the first place.
I don’t believe Bell’s in it just for the money. I believe that he believes he’s doing what’s right for the future of his position. And contrary to popular opinion, running back remains the second-most important position in football.
Look at what Conner has done for the Steelers. He’s opened up the entire offensive arsenal because of the respect defenses must show for him. The line between stopping the steady drip, drip, drip of what Conner does for this offense and Ben Roethlisberger‘s passing game has made the Steelers a legitimate championship contender.
We in Pittsburgh all know deep down that football still begins with the running game. Randy Fichtner has rejuvenated that concept after the organization became lost in the desert with Bruce Arians and Todd Haley.
Problem is, running backs most times don’t survive the brutality of their job, and they eventually take their teams down with them. The greatest Steelers team of all-time was eliminated in the 1976 playoffs because both backs were injured. Jerome Bettis was leading the NFL in rushing in 2001 when he went down in Game 11 with a groin injury. He tried to return for the playoffs, but couldn’t and the Steelers were eliminated.
Bettis worked for the Steelers in 2005 because he knew he was at the end and embraced a role as closer, giving the Steelers two backs that championship season.
But then in 2007 the wheels came off Willie Parker, with a late-season broken leg, and the Steelers and Najeh Davenport were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
The plan in 2008 was to pair Parker with first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall. Ray Lewis broke Mendenhall’s shoulder blade and ended his season, but Parker was injured early in 2008 and the surprising Mewelde Moore stepped in. Parker returned fresh and the Steelers won it all.
Mendenhall was the feature back in the 2010 run, but the Steelers had little else. I’m not sure if Mendenhall was out of gas in the Super Bowl, but his fumble was the game-changer.
The Steelers found themselves with a new star runner in 2014, but Bell was injured in the season finale and missed the playoff elimination game with Ben Tate as the starter.
And in 2015, Bell’s mid-season injury gave Pittsburgh a playoff starter named Fitzgerald Toussaint, and he fumbled it away.
In 2016, Bell was hurt by the time the AFC title game rolled around. His groin injury forced him out of the second quarter and New England had no problem stopping 34-year-old DeAngelo Williams in his final game.
In 2017, the Steelers drafted Conner to complement Bell. Not that both would share in-game duties, but even Conner couldn’t hold up. His injury left it all up to Bell, and he touched the ball a career-high 406 times in the regular season before bowing out of the playoffs.
No one has run with a ball in his hands that many times and won a championship since 1998, when Terrell Davis had 417 regular-season touches and went on to hoist a Lombardi. It was Davis’ second consecutive season of toting 400 times and winning the title, and for that he was voted into the Hall of Fame, in spite of falling off the proverbial cliff following that fourth season in the league.
It’s a B-R-U-T-A-L position, and Bell took a stand for it this year. It’s a position that most times leaves young backs, if not broken, less than scary as offensive threats by the time their second contract negotiation rolls around.
Conner emerged this year, and Bell could’ve returned to provide one of the greatest running back “committees” of all time. Of course, Bell figured there was no forging that kind of committee, and he also no doubt feels – like all great running backs, including Conner – that he becomes more effective in-game with more carries. That’s the old RB standby that goes back to fullback Franco Harris running behind halfback Rocky Bleier in the 1970s.
Yes, that was back when coaches could find carries for both Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick because they used two at a time. When that dynamic turned from split backs into tailbacks, few managed to stay healthy throughout a championship season.
Ego probably had more to do with those lone backs trying to gut it out through a groin pull than the recent “committees” of Jay Ajayi-LeGarrette Blount-Corey Clement for the 2017 Eagles, Blount-James White-Dion Lewis for the 2016 Patriots, and Ronnie Hillman-C.J. Anderson of the 2015 Broncos.
Those teams won championships without star runners, not because the position is unimportant, but because fresh legs in January are so vital. That can’t happen with one superstar getting all the money, yet here were the Steelers in a rare position to utilize two such superstars down the stretch this season.
No, it’s unlikely that Tomlin would’ve used Bell to bite into Conner’s workload at this point, and it’s probably how Bell sees the wall being written. And it’s probably why he’s finally decided to shut it all down.
But what if Conner goes down, even for a game or two. Bell could step in, make his mark, win back the fans, and the coach, and perhaps convince Tomlin to do something unique to NFL ball: Start and utilize a different running back each game. Like a starting pitcher.
It may not be considered the drastic idea in the near future that it would be today – particularly if a team wins a title doing it – but it’s becoming clear that a “pitch count” is needed at a position where weekly effectiveness comes with more in-game carries, but seasonal effectiveness comes with less usage for one back.
It seems drastic, but perhaps would be the harbinger of what Bell is attempting to solve. “Starting pitchers” could’ve been the break Bell’s cause needed. He could’ve solved this obvious problem in the NFL payscale by reporting and showing how a team needs the position to win a title.
After all, starting pitchers only work a quarter, maybe a fifth, of what everyday baseball regulars work, yet they still earn massive paychecks.
What a shame Bell didn’t have the intestinal fortitude it takes to admit to an NFL locker room he was wrong. Because in the end, he could’ve proven he was right.