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Don't judge Le'Veon yet - How Bell could change old NFL thinking

ESPN.com | Updated: 2018-11-17 10:37:13

Think what you will about Le'Veon Bell's decision to sit out the season in pursuit of free-agent riches, but the key word there is "think."

It's tempting right now to retreat to your corner and settle into some insta-conclusion supported by decades of old, established NFL thinking: Bell's crazy. He overplayed his hand. He'll never get what he's looking for. He quit on his team. The Steelers are doing just fine without him. It's silly to pay running backs.

The facts are that this thing isn't over yet, that we can't see the future, and that no final conclusions about Bell's gambit can be made until March, when we find out what kind of free-agent contract he ends up getting. If he gets a Todd Gurley-style megadeal, then this was all worth it. But if he has to take a one-year, "prove-it" deal because not enough teams are interested, then this was a huge mistake. We don't and can't know the outcome yet.

What we do know is that Bell's situation presents us with a chance -- maybe even an obligation -- to think differently about the NFL and its economic structure. One of the best players in the world just kissed off his age-26 season because he thought it was the smart long-term financial move. An employee used the maximum extent of his own leverage to try to gain ground in a system designed almost entirely for the benefit of the employer. If that doesn't make us question what we thought we knew about how all of this works, that's a missed opportunity on our part.

Let's start with the franchise tag itself -- a widely accepted fact of NFL economics but also an anti-capitalistic device designed to restrict the earning power of top players. The Steelers didn't want to give Bell the deal he wanted and they also didn't want to lose him. Fortunately, they operate one of 32 businesses in the world that can have that particular cake and eat it too. For as many as three years in a row, if it can afford to, a team can keep a player from hitting the open market simply by designating him its franchise player and assigning him a one-year deal for a collectively bargained salary.

It's a crazy idea which the players should have never agreed to back in the early 1990s when it was first proposed. But like so much else about the NFL, it's become ingrained, and fans just accept it -- especially when it keeps your team from losing its best players. Even the players don't really fight against it in collective bargaining negotiations, because the vast majority of them will never have to deal with it (a perspective that wrongfully ignores the principle that higher salaries atop the market are beneficial for all salaries throughout).

What Bell has done here is reject the notion that there's nothing you can do about the franchise tag. The Steelers had it as leverage against him in contract negotiations and used it -- two years in a row -- to make sure no other team but Pittsburgh could offer him a long-term contract. The premise is that Bell had two choices: Sign a long-term deal under the Steelers' terms or play on the one-year franchise tag. The deal the Steelers offered wasn't the one he wanted, and the franchise tag meant they didn't have to improve on it in order to get him to stay.

Turns out, Bell had a third choice, which was to flex his own leverage and withhold his services. Even when Bell telegraphed this back in January, almost no one believed him because ... well, who does that? Sure, Sean Gilbert and Dan Williams did it in the late '90s, but neither one of those guys was getting $14.5 million on their franchise tags, as Bell would have if he'd played in 2018. The size of that number and the assumption that playing football this year was among Bell's top priorities made the threat easy to dismiss, pretty much up until he officially made good on it Tuesday afternoon.

Which brings us to our next point, which is the obvious but somehow overlooked fact that playing football and making $14.5 million were not among Bell's top priorities for 2018. Bell's priority all along has been the big free-agent contract he believes awaits him when he reaches the open market in March. He looked at what Gurley got from the Rams -- $14.4 million a year for four years with $21.95 million guaranteed at signing and another $12.55 million in guarantees that kick in next March. No way did any offer from the Steelers, whose stubborn traditional contract structure guarantees only the signing bonus, look like that. And having watched Kirk Cousins try out a similar move this past spring, Bell rightfully believes an open-market free agency could land him even more than Gurley got.

But the part about playing football this year may be the most seismic aspect of all of this. Boiled all the way down, Bell's decision was that, if he wanted to be in the best possible condition for free agency next spring, actually playing football this year was one of the worst things he could do. That's the part that should grab everybody's attention -- the teams, the fans and especially guys like Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt, a couple of non-first-round star running backs who'll be faced with similar decisions soon. Bell looked out over the 2018 season and believed the Steelers would use him the way they always have -- 400 or so touches in the regular season and maybe ride him even harder through what they hope will be a deep playoff run. That kind of exposure to injury and to wear-and-tear didn't appeal to a guy whose priority was to be as healthy as possible when talking to teams about a history-making deal next spring, so he decided not to engage in it.

The manner in which the Steelers have used his replacement, James Conner, proves Bell's point. Conner's 203 touches so far are second most in the league, behind only Gurley. And anyone who thinks the Steelers would have cut back on Bell's usage because they had a capable Conner hasn't spent much time studying the Steelers' offense over the past half-decade or so. They use one back, over and over again, in the running game and the passing game. Had Bell shown up, it's easy to conclude that that back would have been him, and the world still wouldn't know what Conner could do.

What Conner has done has made it easy for the Steelers to look good in all of this. Their end of it fits conventional NFL wisdom perfectly. If you want to perceive players -- and especially running backs -- as replaceable widgets, the 2018 Steelers are your Exhibit A. If Tuesday was the finish line in the Le'Veon Bell saga, then the Steelers were the clear winners.

But Tuesday wasn't the finish line, because this whole thing is bigger than Bell vs. the Steelers. This is about players vs. the system, and about new NFL thinking vs. old NFL thinking. If what you want is to believe the player doesn't have to operate his entire career under the league's and the teams' economic terms, then Bell is still fighting your fight. And it doesn't end for at least four more months.

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