Bell sat atop the chart for Week 1 and the preseason, with an asterisk beside his name for his unsigned franchise tag. Now, the player-team relationship is, at best, distant and icy.
We attempted to unpack the saga last week, yet more questions persist. Let’s get into it, again.
Now that we’re one week into the Bell saga, what is his clear-cut, top priority?
Long-term health is still paramount, and simple math tells the story: He’s less likely to blow out his knee in six or eight regular-season games than 16. Keeping fresh for unrestricted free agency trumps all, even $853,000 a week.
So Bell wants to preserve his health. What else does he want?
That’s still unclear, but given that Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, asked what the Steelers’ plan was in an interview with Sirius XM last week, Bell’s camp seems to want something — perhaps more money or a workload cap.
But communication between Bell and the team is basically nonexistent right now. Coach Mike Tomlin said he has not spoken to Bell and has no clue when he’ll return.
Would the Steelers satisfy either of those requests?
Doubtful, unless the running game falls apart and Bell earns more leverage. In that way, Conner is doing much more than playing running back for the Steelers. But the team isn’t going to reward Bell for missing games, and pitch counts are nearly impossible at this level. The flow of these games, most of which are tight, require the best players to stay on the field.
In fact, don’t expect the Steelers to do much of anything leading up to his arrival. No rescinding the tag, no trade, no new money. Tomlin sees two factors: Bell showing up, and Bell getting assessed to play football.
When Bell shows, what is the team’s plan for him?
The Steelers can apply for a roster exemption that’s good for up to two weeks. And here’s where it gets interesting: If the league grants the exemption, the team can decide whether it wants to pay Bell for that one- or two-week period.
This wasn’t an issue last year when Bell was on the list for a few days before the Steelers activated him for Week 1.
Not sure the Steelers would pull this card, but NFL business gets petty sometimes. Bell probably would want assurances the paperwork would run smoothly upon his return.
What about his future in free agency? Do NFL teams care about the optics of Bell picking business over his team?
Depends on the team. I spoke to two NFL personnel execs this week and got different responses. One said some teams will view Bell’s move as disrupting the team-first formula they covet, thus potentially affecting his bottom line.
While another disagrees, he wonders about Bell’s end game.
“Nobody is going to pay a running back $20 million a year, and if he can get $12-15 million annually, he best take it,” the exec said. “It’s a hazardous position with a short life expectancy. But he’s not bailing, just trying to get his last contract.”
Will Bell’s bold move pay off?
Here’s why it very well might: The combined $165 million in cap space among three NFL teams, according to this week’s NFLPA report:
The Browns could be looking for a long-term answer at tailback by March, and Bell’s skill set would be perfect for the 49ers’ zone-blocking scheme. The Colts have opted for a cost-effective rebuild aimed at good but reasonably priced players.
Either way, Bell must feel good enough about this setup to pass on a near-million each work week.
After the locker room steamed last week, what’s the temperature now?
Lightly chilled. The offensive linemen were incensed after supporting Bell throughout his two-year franchise tag fight, and through two drug-related suspensions early in his career. When Maurkice Pouncey said publicly Bell would be there Wednesday and he wasn’t, they just snapped after that day’s practice.
But the mood shifted later in the week, and by now most of the players have taken a measured approach. One starting defender told me players in his position group talked about Bell’s situation privately and came away respecting both sides. They want him here and they want him to get his business right.
Linebacker Anthony Chickillo calls Bell a “great player and great teammate.”
“I want him to get what he deserves,” Chickillo said.
Once Bell returns, assuming he gets a full week of practice and prepares himself for game reps, the Steelers will welcome him back.
Where does Conner fall in all of this?
Expecting 192 yards per week is not realistic, but Conner’s strong-arm performance in Cleveland showed he can keep the running game honest, or thriving. But Sunday against Kansas City is a huge test for whether Bell will truly be missed in the short term.
Bell has been a Chiefs killer throughout his career, with 744 total yards and four touchdowns in five games.
But as Tomlin said at his media conference Tuesday, Conner loves a heavy workload.
“He gets better with use,” Tomlin said.
The Steelers had better hope so.