The return of Le’Veon Bell will not be a comfortable experience.
The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line trashed Bell. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has thrown shade at Bell. Bell has been complimentary of his replacement, James Conner. But the chatter around Conner is that he’s been as good as Bell, because he’s been more productive.
Bell’s homecoming may not the happiest affair. And it doesn’t seem far away. He needs to report by Nov. 13 in order to accrue an NFL season, which is important because Bell wants to get one year closer to free agency. He’s currently playing on the franchise tag, and would be eligible to get tagged again if he doesn’t report by the 13th.
To use Tomlin’s expression from last weekend, what do the Steelers do with a “hostage” (Bell) when they already have a “volunteer” (Conner)?
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First and foremost, there’s no saying whether Bell will be physically ready. No one seems to know what level of conditioning he’s been putting himself through in Miami during the holdout. Even if he’s in peak condition, he’ll need time to get to a place where he’s ready to touch the ball 25 times per game. He could suffer an injury if he rushes back into action when he’s not physically ready. Preseason stinks, but the games help players get in football shape for the season. And he may not even want volume. Bell could fake an injury to keep himself out. He has already made indications that he’s ready to move on.
Bell clearly held out because he does’t feel like there’s anything left for him to prove heading into free agency. The Steelers may not know that they can trust him to give full effort on every play. After he sat out for half the season, it’s fair to question how much he cares about the outcome of the Steelers’ season. Bell might be running to protect himself and get to the offseason.
Bell might also be a headache. Last season, he was chattering about retirement heading into the playoffs when it dawned on him that this contract dispute was coming. What’s stopping him from causing more trouble?
Of course, this is all the worst case scenario. Bell could return to the Steelers in the next week in perfect shape and an apology prepared for his teammates and coaches. He could keep his mouth shut and regain football physique over the coming weeks while happily splitting carries with Connor before taking a bigger role heading into the postseason.
It’s not impossible. But it also doesn’t really fit Bell’s history.
The Steelers will have to manage Bell’s ego and health carefully as they attempt to acclimate him back into their game plan. Because of the holdout and because Bell has been totally out of communication, they can’t count on him when he returns.