Steelers Thoughts #16 (7/19/18): The Ring of Distant Bells

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

I can, thankfully, only imagine the tedium with which dedicated sports beat reporters fill their offseasons. Freed from the strictures of working at a more traditional, or even outwardly identifiable, sports website, I wile away those same days in a barely distracted haze, neither slave to their all-consuming 24-hour news cycles nor subject to their unquenchable thirst for reckless speculation and calorie-free commentary. At certain points of the journey, however, as forks in the road come into view, I can still rouse myself and adopt more or less the same passionate guise in week three of July that I’ll wear in week ten of the regular season. As the Steelers zero in on the commencement of another training camp in picturesque Latrobe, Pennsylvania, their biggest lingering distraction has finally been sorted out, for better or worse, and is now poised to have metamorphosed into a far more substantial distraction by the time the first referee’s whistle blows. 2018 will almost certainly mark all-world running back Le’Veon Bell’s final season wearing the black and gold. The clock struck four this past Monday, and the Utopian dreams of Steelers fans turned back into unseasonable pumpkin beer. Bell will again suffer the indignity of bearing the dreaded scarlet letter, er, franchise tag, and, in the process, make more for a season of work ($14.5 million guaranteed) than any other NFL player at his position will. Soak that in for a minute or twenty.

I have lingering love yet for Lev Bell, and come here neither to bury nor praise him, merely to ruminate in an unseemly manner on what might’ve or, perhaps, should’ve been, and how it stands to affect what, at every level, stakeholders with hypocycloids in their wardrobes have already at least privately labeled a “Super Bowl or Bust” campaign. If, in purely conceptual terms, that franchise tag alone represents hemorrhage-triggering money, then it’s harder still to wrap the remains of your head around the Steelers’ purported final offer of 5 years at $70 million (with $30 mil guaranteed). Surely we’d all love to be insulted by our bosses in such a manner just once in our careers, and at this point, with two years’ worth of both sides predictably saying all the right things while spinning wheels and nudging their negotiations closer just in time for everything to anticlimactically fizzle out, it’s worth asking whether Bell really means his periodic benevolent tweets, where he talks about a fervent desire to retire a Steeler, more than he does his more petulant outbursts, in both social media, where he laments how the grind has turned him into a “villain” in the eyes of some Steelers fans, and in his boutique side-hustle as a would-be rapper. How much is his perception of legitimate disrespect and how much is dogged determination to prove a possibly injurious point at the expense of an infamously even-keeled franchise who has been notoriously loathe to overpay for anyone?

Beloved everyman face of the franchise Hines Ward was essentially forced into retirement when the Steelers wouldn’t pay him an honorarium at the end of his Hall of Fame-worthy career. Notorious sack artist, defensive captain, and current OLB coach Joey Porter spent his final seasons playing in Arizona. Franco Harris, fellow running back and a figure so important to Steelers fortune and lore that a full-size sculpture of him scooping The Immaculate Reception out of thin air welcomes new arrivals to Pittsburgh International Airport, spent his in Seattle. Le’Veon Bell is an inarguable talent and a magnificent, multifaceted, perhaps even mildly revolutionary, player, but he is not Franco Harris yet. Harris, a lead pipe cinch for the Pro Football Hall of Fame from the moment he retired, ended his career with four Super Bowl rings and not just a bust but a personal exhibit in Canton, Ohio. Each of Bell’s five seasons in the NFL has brought with it escalating, arguably unreasonable, expectations, due in no small part to what he might contribute to a high-powered, theoretically explosive Steelers offense with the personnel and potential to be among the league’s best. Two of those seasons started with him on the sidelines for admittedly piddly but still enforceable personal conduct infractions. Three of those seasons ended unceremoniously with him already sidelined due to particularly timely injuries. None of them produced a Super Bowl victory, or even a consolation trip to the big game.

For two years, Bell’s contract situation has hung like the Sword of Damocles above the collective head of a fanbase already not necessarily known for contextual analysis and sober reflection. Steelers fans are, of course, painfully aware of how the black and gold brass generally operate, and have switched with whiplash-inducing frequency between various closely held beliefs on Bell depending on the flavor of the day’s news. Now that Bell’s hash is settled, they are even more understandably anxious than when his situation was in flux. Pro Bowl quarterback and franchise record collector Ben Roethlisberger only dedicated himself to playing on a year-by-year basis after emerging from a prolonged period of reflection that encompassed more or less the entire 2017 offseason. At the end of 2018, he was suddenly excited about playing not just another season but up to three. The Steelers were arguably one horrific injury to defensive stalwart Ryan Shazier – whose preternatural talent and presence at middle linebacker might have been just enough to slow down Jacksonville and New England’s straight ahead ground and air bombing campaigns, respectively – away from playing in their ninth Super Bowl. The fact that Pittsburgh emerged from the 2018 NFL Draft having earmarked Roethlisberger’s eventual successor but not Bell’s (Shazier’s replacement proved all but impossible for a team picking 26th and unwilling to overreach for marginal talent) has to say something about the good faith under which they negotiated with the mercurial running back. The final offer did increase $10 million overall and $10 million guaranteed from the prior year. Why was it not enough? Could the Steelers ever offer enough and still look themselves in the mirror?

When, on Wednesday, the fiscally adventurous Los Angeles Rams signed WR Brandin Cooks to a remarkably flush contract extension, the first dot the sports commentariat connected was between the freshly fed Cooks and the still presumably famished Bell. Shouldn’t the respect-seeking Bell be righteously upset by Cooks’ windfall? What, despite the fact that Bell was not, in fact, negotiating with the Rams – who, for the record, already have, in deadly Swiss Army-back Todd Gurley, something of a Bell 2.0 – nor is he a wide receiver, despite his insistence on being paid like one? There’ll be more than time enough to gauge Bell’s intentions and how his unfiltered desires might manifest during the 2019 offseason. There’s tons of football to be played in the interim. This just in. That mindset is in line with public chiding from Bell’s agent Adisa Bakari, who faulted the Steelers for wanting to “pay the position” (running back) rather than the player. Bakari takes a fair amount of blame in retrospect for what I presume was his contribution to the saga, namely planting the idea that because of Bell’s serious talent for catching passes out of the backfield and running to daylight he should be paid like a #1 running back and #2 wide receiver combined. I will say that A) that complaint sounds suspiciously like paying the position rather than the player*, and B) it has no basis in reality, since that extreme hybrid position does not exist on any depth chart and the Steelers were never going to be solely responsible for such a bank-breaking paradigm shift.

*Bakari’s other objection seems to boil down to “not enough guaranteed money”, and it’s here I’ll listen more intently to Bell advocates. $30 mil guaranteed is, I think we can agree, already what a stereotypical Irishman might call a “pile o’ cash”. Why not ask point blank exactly what irrevocable figure would be necessary to make the deal happen? If you’re as invested in a happy outcome for all as you say you are, hell, why not volunteer it? Part of Omar Khan’s annual post-graduate wizardry as the Steelers’ chief negotiator is the reduction of especially onerous salary cap numbers by converting a year’s conditional pay into guaranteed bonus money. Every offseason, including this one, features multiple such examples of the Math of Khan. What I’m saying is there never seems to be crippling trepidation over guaranteeing money in those cases. What’s different with Bell? Which side is inexplicably still hiding its cards even as the next hand is already being dealt?

So where does this leave us as either a franchise or a nationwide gaggle of unusually invested onlookers? Unsettled, I’d say, nursing a heady mix of anticipatory and dry-heaving nerves. When festivities begin in Latrobe next week, Bell will be just as AWOL as he was in 2017. As the All-Pro is a workout fiend 365 days out of the year, overall physical conditioning does not appear to be Bell’s issue, though game shape just might be. Though he led the league in rushing last year, his first few games back were tricky sledding indeed, and a rational man might point to his lack of training camp as a contributing factor. By a similar token, I noticed some comparative late season struggles, though they were just as attributable to my eye to a lack of open holes as any inability to hit them.** I know WAR (wins above replacement) is, as a statistic, primarily a baseball invention, but, as someone for whose fantasy team Bell was the centerpiece, I will say his WAR value seemed shockingly average throughout the season. This speaks to coach Mike Tomlin’s demonstrable if normally unspoken desire to “run the wheels off” of Bell in order to supercharge the offense, an approach that only seems likely to intensify the closer Le’Veon inches to free agency. Behind him, Steelers fans still love homegrown cancer survivor James Connor, who’ll need to accomplish a major jump from his rookie campaign in order to be able to realistically hang. How quickly Bell reaches top form in 2018 and how well he sustains it, basically his level of applied professionalism even as an overworked lame duck, will go far toward determining the Steelers’ fate.

**After years of overachievement, Mike Munchack’s O-Line is finally a consensus top five unit, and it should go without saying that their play will be crucial not just to Bell’s effectiveness but to every facet of how the offense performs. Say, for instance, that Roethlisberger does finally start to hear legitimate footsteps this season from a young Mason Rudolph waiting in the wings. The O-Line galvanizing around his leadership and playing lights out under pressure out might be sufficient to kick his A-game into the rare extra gear we all know it occasionally has, just as an extra dozen sacks could be the thing to nudge him out the door permanently.

Pressure will be the watchword for the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers in general – pressure to reduce mistakes, pressure to stop the run, pressure to address Shazier’s loss in the most effective (and, inevitably, creative) way possible, pressure for last year’s rookies to become this year’s workhorses, pressure for this year’s rookies to step up, pressure for the offense to perform like the Italian sports car it resembles, and, of course and above all, pressure to win, win, win in the final year in which Bell, Roethlisberger, and newly-minted Madden cover athlete Antonio Brown will toil under the same banner. Players league-wide are going to close ranks and band together for more money (the aforementioned Gurley opined just today that the NFL “don’t want to pay us”, while ascendant Steeler wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster has already publicly offered Bell “a couple mil” of his own rookie contract money to stay), and I’m not here to suggest they don’t have a case, or an honest grievance, just that when the dam finally blows open for the currently undervalued position of running back, it won’t be the Pittsburgh Steelers standing in the rubble, holding a compressed plunger. Whether or not that stubborn philosophical adherence to what got them here is part of the problem, or will yet advance them further, remains to be seen, as does the question of whether a Bell with one foot already figuratively out the door can be wholeheartedly trusted to help get them there. Either way, this team’s time is now.

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