The Steelers and Le’Veon Bell both made closing pushes leading up to Tuesday’s deadline to iron out a deal that would have brought him back to Pittsburgh this season, but neither side could finalize an agreement, league sources told ESPN.
The Steelers were told that if they were willing to not use their franchise or transition tag on Bell after this season, he would consider reporting to the team, according to sources. But the Steelers declined Bell’s request because they felt the tag was too important to forgo.
This sets up a brewing battle between the NFL’s management council and the NFL Players Association in a potentially precedent-setting case over Bell’s future, a case that likely will be decided by an arbitrator, according to league sources.
The management council believes the Steelers will be able to use a $9.5 million transition tag on Bell this offseason that would give Pittsburgh the chance to match any offer sheet that the Pro Bowl running back signs with another team. The council believes the $9.5 million salary should be based on his salary this year, which Bell forfeited by not reporting.
But the NFLPA believes that the transition tag must be $14.54 million — which would be 120 percent of Bell’s salary from the last franchise tag that he played under in 2017.
The NFLPA will argue, as it states in the collective bargaining agreement, that Bell’s tag would be based off the prior year’s “negotiated” contract. But there were no negotiations for the $14.54 million franchise tag that was applied to Bell this season, which has opened the door to this discrepancy.
No player has ever been in a situation like this. If the league wins the ruling, it will add even more leverage to teams using franchise and transition tags. If the NFLPA wins, it will give players more rights if they decide to skip seasons when tagged.
But Bell also could win by losing. Some sources believe he is more likely to land an offer sheet from another team if the Steelers are allowed to tag him at $9.5 million rather than the $14.54 million that the NFLPA will be demanding.
Conversely, while Bell’s absence might end up hurting the Steelers this season, it helps them next season.
The Steelers are allowed to carry over the $14.54 million in salary-cap space they had attached to Bell’s franchise tag and apply it to their cap as a credit for next season — and that is their plan, according to league sources.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” one source familiar with the Steelers’ thinking told ESPN.
The Steelers typically are one of the teams that is right up against the salary cap, desperately seeking ways to come up with more cap space. In recent years, they have had to restructure players’ contracts at the start of the league year in March to be able to make moves in free agency and the draft.
If the Steelers decide to use a tag on Bell, some of that cap space will be used. But if and when Bell lands with another team, that $14.54 million credit will be applied to the Steelers’ cap.
In a fitting end to a bizarre holdout story, several Pittsburgh Steelers players rummaged through Bell’s locker and removed his No. 26 nameplate after Wednesday’s practice.
Bell forfeited the season and his $14.5 million franchise tag by failing to report to team headquarters on Tuesday. He left behind a locker full of stuff, including cleats, shirts and a CD labeled ‘Le’Veon Bell #1.”
Linebacker Bud Dupree scored two pairs of Jordan cleats and thanked Bell. The move seemed more playful than malicious.
“Appreciate the cleats, my guy,” Dupree said into a camera. “I wish you success, my guy.”
Bell’s locker had stayed intact through his holdout.
Players answered Bell-related questions for what they hope is the last time. Defensive end Cam Heyward said the most disappointing part of the Bell holdout is “that we even talk about it.”
“It sucks when a guy doesn’t have to answer his own questions,” Heyward said. “If they aren’t on the team, I’m not worried about it.
“… Just get back to football. That’s all we can do. Wish him the best. This train doesn’t stop for anybody.”
Guard Ramon Foster, the team’s NFL Players Association rep, took a businesslike approach to Bell’s absence.
“Save your money, get a lot of information on what we’re trying to do moving forward and that way stuff like this doesn’t happen,” Foster said in a message directed at players. “We fall short on things because guys get selfish or guys say, ‘Hey, yeah, we’re going to take a deal.’
“We’ve got to inform ourselves this next time around so this type of stuff doesn’t happen. I hate it. [The franchise tag] could be good for both sides because you’re one of the highest paid at your position. But they retain your rights so you don’t hit the open market.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback said he texted Bell before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. reporting deadline but didn’t hear back. By not showing up, Bell forfeited the 2018 season — and $14.5 million in earnings on the franchise tag — in an effort to preserve his body for unrestricted free agency.
“I texted him, saying I hoped he was going to show up and if he decided not to, I wished him nothing but the best,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday morning from his locker. “He was a great teammate and football player.”
Roethlisberger isn’t judging Bell for his decision to leave behind his salary and a potential Super Bowl run by the Steelers (6-2-1).
“To each their own on what they want to walk away from,” Roethlisberger said.
That’s where the insight on Bell stopped, as Roethlisberger made it clear that he wanted to move on.
Bell and Roethlisberger shared a backfield for five seasons, with Bell averaging 128.9 yards from scrimmage per game since 2013. Bell, Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown formed the “Killer B’s,” one of the NFL’s most formidable trios.
Bell’s nameplate is still on his locker, but he won’t be coming back.
“The thing about it is he’s not here, he’s not going to be here, so we don’t have to talk about it,” Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger said his sole focus is Sunday’s game against Jacksonville, which is arguably the biggest challenge of the year for the Steelers’ offense. The Jaguars intercepted Roethlisberger five times during a Week 5 game last season.
Roethlisberger enjoys the preparation process, which is why sitting out a season would “be tough,” he acknowledged.
“Part of the great thing about this sport is this band of brothers and this group of guys and being with them,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s what keeps me coming back.”
Not Le’Veon Bell, who, money aside, wanted to retire a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Not the Steelers, who offered Bell a $70 million extension this offseason, though without the guarantees to Bell’s liking.
And certainly not Pittsburgh fans who cheered Bell’s prolific play for five seasons.
But Bell’s lost season — finalized Tuesday when he didn’t show by the 4 p.m. deadline to sign his franchise tag — was a byproduct of two stubborn sides that weren’t meant to negotiate.
Bell was willing to forfeit $14.5 million to become a standard-bearer for undervalued top players everywhere, banking on a lucrative deal as an unrestricted free agent in March.
The Steelers won’t budge from their traditional — maybe archaic — contract structures that don’t guarantee money beyond Year 1 of any deal.
If Bell was with another franchise, he might not be in this situation.
But both sides can still get what they want, and be better off for it.
How Bell wins: Secure $40 million in guarantees from a team with a creative offense and a winning culture.
Bell told ESPN in October he was seeking at least $40 million in guarantees in negotiations with the Steelers last offseason. That range would have secured Bell’s future in Pittsburgh. The Steelers offered $17 million, Bell says.
Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson recently signed a three-year, $39 million deal with $31.82 million in guarantees. Bell will be looking for a 20 percent increase of that, and with the salary cap likely to balloon another 7 to 8 percent, Bell might just get there.
A long-term deal worth up to $60 million with most of it guaranteed would be considered a win for Bell. Remember, he’s only 26, and despite running backs sharply declining with age and usage, Bell might be best served cutting a three-year deal and signing another, albeit smaller contract at age 29 or 30.
The highest bidder will most likely be a bad team, but Bell’s skill set would thrive with the Philadelphia Eagles or San Francisco 49ers. Those teams could have some fun with Bell, and they aren’t afraid to spend.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin speaks to the business element that is a part of the NFL.
How the Steelers win: Improve the defense, support James Conner, walk away from Bell.
The Steelers have the option to tag Bell a third time, but at this point a clean divorce might be necessary. Letting Bell walk while getting a mid-round compensatory pick when he signs a lucrative contract elsewhere seems like the logical play.
Absent of a tag, the Steelers will have an additional $14 or so million in cap space that they reserved for Bell all offseason.
They didn’t get to spend that on the defense last spring, but they can this time. The Steelers can carry over almost $20 million of cap space into 2019, and though a Ben Roethlisberger extension will absorb much of that, they should have flexibility to improve areas of the defense, maybe find a coverage linebacker to pair with Vince Williams and company.
The Steelers closely evaluated several running backs in the top three rounds of the 2018 draft. Though the Steelers are 2-for-2 on Day 2 running backs Bell and Conner, who’s the future of the position, securing another can alleviate Conner’s usage and complement the passing game.
PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell has officially left $14.5 million on the table.
The All-Pro running back failed to report to Pittsburgh Steelers headquarters Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, the deadline for him to play this season on the franchise tag.
“I want to confirm that Le’Veon Bell did not sign his Franchise Tender today and, as a result, he will not be eligible to play football during the 2018 season,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement.
Bell, who’s currently in Pittsburgh, is missing the season to preserve his long-term viability for a 2019 contract despite telling ESPN on Oct. 1 that he would play in 2018.
“I’ll be fully committed and give you everything I have,” Bell said then. “I still want to go out there and win a Super Bowl with the Steelers.”
Rocky franchise-tag negotiations created distance between Bell and the Steelers. Bell missed 2017 training camp when both sides couldn’t agree on a contract, and he eventually played on a $12.12 million tag. He took it a step further this year by missing games after turning down a five-year, $70 million offer because of what Bell calls a low true guarantee of $17 million. Bell has been able to stay away because he’s unsigned.
The Steelers explored dealing Bell before the Oct. 30 trade deadline, but no deal was possible without his signature. A third franchise tag in 2019 would rise to $25 million-plus — based on a formula involving the five highest-paid players in the league — regardless of whether Bell played a down in 2018. In the offseason, the Steelers will consider using a $14.5 million transition tag, which allows them to match any outside offer for Bell or let him walk in free agency. If he signed a lucrative deal elsewhere, the Steelers would receive a midround compensatory draft pick.
When asked what happens if Bell never returns to the Steelers, coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday afternoon, “So be it.”
Bell’s replacement, James Conner, is third in the NFL in rushing yards (771) and rushing touchdowns (10). He also leads the league with eight runs of 20-plus yards.
Teammates once imagined the possibilities with an All-Pro tailback and an emerging weapon working together. Now, after five consecutive wins, they’ve moved past that fantasy.
“I’m not going to comment on someone who’s not in this locker room right now,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said when asked about Bell after Thursday’s 52-21 win over the Carolina Panthers.
Said wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster last month: “[In Conner], you’ve got a young dude who’s just proving what he can do, to Steeler fans and the nation.”
Players were surprised when Bell didn’t show for Week 1, with his own offensive line ripping him for the absence. Guard Ramon Foster and center Maurkice Pouncey both labeled the move selfish. One veteran player told ESPN anonymously: “He f—ed us.”
Things have cooled since then, and many had said they’d welcome Bell back. That’s a moot point now.
Bell, who will turn 27 in February, had been training in South Florida and in July tweeted this season would be his “best to date.”
Bell produced nearly 2,000 total yards last year but started slowly, averaging 3.46 yards per carry through the first three weeks of the season. Bell’s average of 128.9 total yards per game from 2013 to 2017 is the highest for an NFL back over the first five seasons of a career since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
Up until late last week, the Steelers were bracing for the return of Bell, who played basketball at a local LA Fitness last week. But ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported this past weekend that Bell was unlikely to show.
“I don’t know what his plans are, but I would say that at this point, we expect him to come back next week,” team president Art Rooney II told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Thursday. “We know he’s back in Pittsburgh, and so we’re hoping to have some communications with him over the weekend, and we’re kind of expecting he will be back next week.”
“I feel I can be the missing piece,” Bell told ESPN on Oct. 1, the day after the Steelers rushed for 19 yards in a 26-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Bell privately eyed a return before the Week 8 matchup with the Cleveland Browns, a few weeks earlier than his original plan.
But a story with seemingly endless twists and turns started to get re-tangled. Bell told at least one person in his circle he was concerned about a trade, prompting him to stay away beyond the Oct. 30 trade deadline. The Philadelphia Eagles were among the teams he believed were interested in moving on him, and a trade would complicate his free-agency plans. Steelers running back James Conner went on a rampage starting in Week 5.
Still, Bell worked his normal training routine in the weeks before leaving Miami, and his return to Pittsburgh last week prompted optimism.
But then, as of Saturday night, Bell was unlikely to show at the team facility by the 4 p.m. ET Tuesday deadline to play at all this season, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
Tuesday was the moment of truth, and Bell stayed away, leaving $14.5 million on the table this season.
After two years of rocky negotiations, cryptic messages and salty teammates, nothing surprises anymore.
Here’s how we got here …
June 2016: With a second drug suspension looming, Bell tells reporters he’s not negotiating with the Steelers, setting the stage for him to play out the final year of his rookie deal. Bell’s off-field issues prevent both sides from finding a pre-free-agency agreement that would have avoided Tuesday’s mess. “We haven’t had that discussion yet, so I’m gonna let that thing take care of itself and see where it goes from there,” Bell says.
July 2016: Under the alias “Juice,” a nickname given by coach Mike Tomlin, Bell releases the rap song “Focus,” which revealed his self-worth on the field. “I’m at the top, and if not, I’m the closest. I’m a need 15 a year and they know this,” he rapped, hinting at a $15 million salary.
Aug. 21, 2016: During the week the NFL hits him with a three-game suspension, Bell comes clean. “I already apologized to my teammates, my coaches and Steeler Nation,” Bell says. “I’m sincerely sorry about everything I put everybody through. It’s been frustrating, and I own up to everything. It’s all my fault, and I can’t blame nobody else for that.” Any last hopes for a contract discussion are dashed at this point.
Dec. 28, 2016: Accepting the team MVP award for his historic production in 2016, averaging 157 yards per game, Bell tells reporters about his contract: “Obviously, I want to be a Pittsburgh Steeler so obviously we’re going to try to do everything it takes to make that happen.” Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger says the team should do whatever it can to keep him.
Feb. 27, 2017: The Steelers place the first franchise tag on Bell, stressing that they hope it can help Bell retire a Steeler with a long-term deal. The tag is worth $12.12 million.
May 23, 2017: Bell fails to show up for organized team activities, making it known he’s not happy to be tagged. Bell was recovering from a knee injury and couldn’t practice yet, but his absence speaks loudly. “I’m not worried about the chemistry, but I wish he’d be here just because he’s one of the pieces to our puzzle,” Roethlisberger says. “I know he can’t participate because I don’t think he’s 100 percent healthy, but it would be nice to see him here just in terms of the chemistry and learning and being a part of this process. But obviously, it’s up to him.”
July 17, 2017: The franchise-tag deadline passes without a deal, and Bell tells ESPN both sides were not particularly close, while setting a tone for the future. “I feel I should be valued as a player, not so much my position,” Bell says. “Hopefully down the line I can get valued at, not as much a guy who gets the ball 30 carries and that’s it … I make plays in the passing game, blocking, doing everything. I’m arguably the top running back in the NFL and the No. 2 receiver on the Steelers, even though I play running back. Their career receiving total vs. mine, they don’t have more yards than me.”
Rex Ryan and Matt Hasselbeck react to Le’Veon Bell being unlikely to report by Tuesday’s deadline, making him ineligible to play this season.
Sept. 4, 2017: After missing training camp, Bell ends his holdout and returns to the Steelers for his first practice, the Monday of Week 1. Addressing reporters at his locker, Bell says he plans to show the team he can play an injury-free season; Bell had concluded each of the previous three with an injury. Healthy and back in the lineup, the franchise-tag discussion goes dormant for a while.
Oct. 9, 2017: After 15 carries for 47 yards in a 30-9 loss to the Jaguars, Bell calls sticking with the run a “formula for winning.” The message: Run the ball more. The next week, Bell posts 179 yards on 32 carries in Kansas City.
Jan. 12, 2018: Bell drops big news in an interview with ESPN, claiming he’d sit out the 2018 season or even retire if the Steelers place the franchise tag on him for the second consecutive year. “Just get the numbers straight, exactly where we want them. I’m not going to settle for anything,” Bell says the Thursday of the week of the divisional playoff against Jacksonville. “I know what I do and what I bring to the table. I’m not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I’m not getting what I feel I’m valued at.” This serves as foreshadowing for the lengthy 2018 holdout.
Jan. 24, 2018: Bell speaks with optimism from the Pro Bowl, teasing a long-term deal. “We are a lot closer than we were last year,” Bell says. The source of Bell’s optimism: The Steelers told him after the season that they wanted to avoid a repeat of 2017 and actually lock him up this time.
Feb. 28, 2018: General manager Kevin Colbert addresses Bell’s status from the NFL scouting combine. He, too, sounds encouraged. “I don’t like to get into too much detail,” he says. “I can say this, though, I’m optimistic that we can find common ground. Those things are never final until they’re final.” Colbert stresses it’s “nobody’s goal” to use the tag. Until the tag became a reality.
March 6, 2018: The Steelers tag Bell on the last day of the exclusive window. The tag is worth $14.5 million. Bell talks to ESPN about the news. “We’re not coming to a number we both agree on — they are too low, or I guess they feel I’m too high,” Bell says. “I’m playing for strictly my value to the team. That’s what I’m asking.” The Steelers had come up from the previous year’s deal that averaged $13.3 million per year, but it wasn’t enough. He doubles down on his retire-or-sit-out approach. “I just have to decide if I’m going to play when the time comes,” Bell says.
March 29, 2018: Bell posts a cryptic tweet about how fans and media depict his approach to his contract. “It’s so hard to be a hero in a city that paints youu out to be the villain,” he tweets. Bell had spoken in the past about fans taking the team’s side over the player’s, so this tweet addresses his feelings on the issue.
May 24, 2018: The Steelers undergo their second consecutive organized team activities without Bell. Players say they are torn. They want Bell to get paid but want a valued teammate with them, too. Antonio Brown supports Brown but, based on his own experience with contracts, adds, “the first rule of getting better is showing up. You can’t make anything better without showing up.” Brown later clarifies that he wasn’t telling Bell he should show up, simply relaying his personal belief.
May 25, 2018: Bell releases a rap track, “Target,’ a 3-plus-minute song that addresses his current feelings about the negotiations. A sample:
So they put me on the tag, all right/Definitely not going to trip like I that bad guy/Wonder why they treat me like the bad guy/You say I ain’t the best, but that’s a bad lie/I’mma do what I want, just leave me alone/If I don’t do what you want then you want me gone/I’mma say you being real aggressive/The way you switch up on me real impressive.
July 16, 2018: The Steelers and Bell once again fail to reach a deal by the 4 p.m. ET deadline, forcing Bell to play — or not play — on a $14.5 million tag. Agent Adisa Bakari tells Schefter that Bell likely enters his final season as a Steeler. NFL Network reports that Bell’s final offer was $70 million over five years. Bell tweets to fans that he was sorry they were let down, both sides tried hard to execute a deal and 2018 would be his “best [season] to date.”
July 17, 2018: Appearing on NFL Live, Bakari stresses that guaranteed money was a sticking point. “The Steelers have a unique way of structuring deals,” Bakari says. “These contracts are not fully guaranteed. Le’Veon plays a position that has one of the shortest lifespans in the league. We have to focus on the guarantee. It’s safe to say he’ll get a guarantee [as a free agent] that is more traditional, and he’ll be protected for the balance of his career.” This quote encapsulates why both sides are where they are now. Another team might kick in more guarantees to get the deal done, but the Steelers simply don’t do that. Bakari tells SiriusXM that, barring something “exceptional,” Bell will follow the same blueprint as the previous year: miss training camp, show up for Week 1.
July 25, 2018:Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley signs a four-year, $57.5 million extension. The deal includes his fifth-year option and averages around $11.5 million per year with that season in account. Gurley got $21.95 million at signing, according to reports.
Aug. 23, 2018: Steelers players are still in the dark about Bell’s return. “I wish I knew,” center Maurkice Pouncey says.
Aug. 28, 2018: Bell responds to a report that he indicated to teammates he was coming Week 1, calling it “fake news.” “I never said anything to no one,” he tweets.
Sept. 3, 2018: On Monday, Pouncey tells ESPN that Bell will show up Wednesday. Pouncey says he wasn’t told that directly but was going off a feeling, based on the competitor that Pouncey knows well.
Sept. 5, 2018: No Bell, and all Bell breaks loose. Bakari makes media appearances, saying his client must protect his long-term health. Multiple teammates rip Bell after that day’s practice. “What do you do? Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn,” guard Ramon Foster tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I just hate it came to this. He’s making seven times what I make, twice as much as [left tackle] Al [Villanueva] is making and we’re the guys who do it for him.” One veteran player says anonymously: “He f—-d us.” Players are upset more with the secrecy than the decision. And the fact that Pouncey, a team leader, put himself out there with the Wednesday prediction and it didn’t happen. A day later, guard David DeCastro says the team had no hard feelings and would move on. But Waldo is still out there …
Sept. 8, 2018: Not showing by the Saturday before the season opener means Bell misses out on his first $855,000 game check off the franchise tag.
Sept. 9, 2018: Conner, Bell’s replacement, goes for 192 total yards in his first NFL start, setting the stage for a successful stint replacing Bell, save for a dormant three-game stretch from Weeks 2-4. Conner is among the league leaders in rushing yards and touchdowns.
Sept. 17, 2018: Bell is spotted on a jet ski in South Florida, via TMZ. He tells a fan who captured him on video that he’s “cooling” on the water. Bell has a release party for his EP, “My Side of Things,” in a Miami club around the same time.
Oct. 1, 2018: Bell speaks publicly about his holdout for the first time in an interview with ESPN. Bell says he’s playing in 2018, doesn’t expect to be traded, expects the team to transition-tag him in 2019 and still wants to be a Steeler long term. “I miss football,” Bell says. “When I do get back, I plan to give it my all. I still do want to go out there and win a Super Bowl with the Steelers.” Bell adds he had to “take this stand” and confirms he turned down a $70 million offer over five years because of the low guarantee ($17 million). “It’s monopoly money,” he says.
Oct. 22, 2018: Bell doesn’t show up for the Monday of Week 8 despite original plans to do so, but around this time the Steelers have their first contact with Bakari in a while.
Oct. 30, 2018: The trade deadline passes, ensuring Bell cannot be dealt because he’s an unsigned player.
Nov. 6, 2018: A day after he tweets “Fairwell Miami,” Bell is spotted playing basketball at the LA Fitness gym in a north Pittsburgh suburb. The story is officially the gift that keeps on giving.
Nov. 7, 2018: Bell’s latest cryptic, upside-down tweet six days before the deadline hints that he might not be showing up at all.
Nov. 8, 2018: After pounding the Panthers 52-21 behind his five touchdowns, Roethlisberger tells the media he won’t comment on players who aren’t here. He is asked directly about Bell. Tight end Jesse James says Bell can help the offense because he’s an explosive player.
Nov. 10, 2018: Bell is unlikely to report to the Steelers by the Nov. 13 deadline, according to Schefter, citing Bell’s “cone of silence” in recent weeks in regard to communication with the team or the media. The countdown is on.
Nov. 13, 2018: The 4 p.m. ET deadline passes with no Bell. He is now ineligible to play the remainder of the 2018 season. He will become a free agent this offseason.
Pittsburgh 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.
Even as the Steelers now brace to lose their marquee running back for the entire season, Bell’s camp continues to maintain its cone of silence and repeatedly has declined to address with reporters his plans for the coming week.
As the team and its fans await Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET deadline, by which Bell must report or be ineligible to play for the remainder of the season, it is worth remembering what the Pro Bowl back said in January.
Ten months ago, Bell said he “definitely would consider” sitting out the 2018 season or retiring if the Steelers used the franchise tag on him for a second consecutive season. The Steelers did use the tag, and there are no indications that Bell will report by the deadline.
By sitting out this season, the 26-year-old Bell ostensibly has been trying to preserve his value and body, allowing James Conner (771 yards on 164 carries and 10 touchdowns) to get the work in the Steelers’ backfield. Conner, who averages 4.7 yards per run, is on pace for close to 300 carries, similar to what Bell had last season. It is wear and tear that Bell seemingly did not want to absorb as he gets ready to become a free agent.
Despite Steelers owner Art Rooney telling Sirius XM Radio on Thursday that he expected Bell to report by Tuesday, the running back has skipped every chance he’s had to report, including during Pittsburgh’s recent bye week, when he could have collected $855,000 just for being on the roster.
Bell did not report hours before the Steelers’ Thursday night victory over Carolina, when he could have collected another $855,000 for playing in the game. He has bypassed the chance to make more than $8.5 million and could make only $6 million more if he were to report by Tuesday.
But the reason he has been willing to forgo all of this so far is the reason that multiple people do not expect to see Bell this week, or this season, either. And if Bell doesn’t report by Tuesday, which is now the belief, then his Steelers career would be over.
DRESSED IN A BLACKPittsburgh Steelers shirt, the woman sniffed back tears as she made her way through the still-crowded memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, gently, unconsciously rolling a small stone in her right palm. I never intended to start this “week with the Steelers” diary with a visit to Squirrel Hill, but you realize quickly that, in this town, there’s no way to separate the two: On this Monday morning, the two items above the fold in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are James Conner and the Squirrel Hill Massacre. There are more parallels: David and Cecil Rosenthal, two of the 11 victims in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in United States history, were brothers of Michele Rosenthal, the team’s former community relations manager; head coach Mike Tomlin lives a block from the synagogue, near Art Rooney II, as well; two buses of Steelers players, along with Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, attended the victims’ funerals last week. In Baltimore, eight deays after the attack, Ben Roethlisberger sported cleats with the now ubiquitous “Stronger Than Hate” logo featuring the star of David as part of the Steelers logo.
That logo is everywhere at this memorial, held this week at Tree of Life — still framed by yellow police tape and bursting with flowers, candles, rain-soaked signs and heart-breaking personal notes. It’s painted onto the stones that mourners have left behind for the dead, following Jewish custom. There are thousands of stones here now, some precariously stacked four, five high, on top of the nameplates, and when you begin to contemplate the massive, collective tapestry of grief they form, it’s instantly overwhelming. The rest of the world may have moved on already to the next mass shooting — another 13 dead just 12 days later, in Thousand Oaks, California — but the sorrow in Squirrel Hill lingers.
Even here, the Steelers mean something. Along with the stones, which feature the team logo, there is a man in a wheelchair paying his respects while wearing a throwback Troy Polamalu jersey. A woman stands at a steel barricade, bowed in prayer, holding up a giant poster asking people to put a Steel Curtain of love around the Tree of Life. “Obviously, everyone is still really feeling the pain, but the Steelers have been instrumental in uniting this community and supporting these poor families,” says Dr. Stanley Marks, a lifelong Pittsburgh resident, Pitt grad and the chairman of the nearby UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “Forget sports — this team is an important fabric of the community.”
After leaving Tree of Life, I walked up a small hill to the Commonplace Coffeehouse on Forbes Avenue, which had recently received a $650 donation — free coffee for all on Saturday, Nov. 3 — from citizens in Newtown, Connecticut, who experienced the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Just a few months ago, I was in Jacksonville, working on a story about a shooting at a Madden tournament. The killer walked right by a giant poster of the latest Madden NFL cover, featuring Steelers wideout Antonio Brown. Sports used to be our escape, but the Steelers represent the new normal now: Each of us connected, sometimes in multiple ways, to a mass shooting.
As I walked back to my car, a strange thumping noise stopped me in my tracks at the foot of the Jewish Community Center on the west side of Squirrel Hill, where the clock tower is in Hebrew, the flag is at half-mast and the steps remain covered in flowers. Eventually I traced the sound to a large bay window at the front of the building where toddlers in the center’s day care had crowded onto the windowsill and were pounding on the glass until each passerby stopped what they were doing to smile and wave back at them.
Even the bus drivers were pulling up short of their stop to open their doors to wave to the kids. As they did, the info screens on the sides of the buses flashed the words: Pittsburgh Strong.
SQUIRREL HILL IS 3.6 miles from the Steelers’ practice facility south of downtown on the banks of the Monongahela River. It’s a unique, picturesque setting here where old and new Pittsburgh mix and young employees headed into the nearby American Eagle headquarters stroll past massive pieces salvaged from old steel mills that dot the riverbank like modern art sculptures. After the Steelers’ late return from Baltimore on Sunday, the most action at the facility on Monday morning is on the river next-door, where a Murray American tugboat is churning the water, struggling to push a rusty chain of coal barges several hundred feet long.
The locker room is so deserted, in fact, that when backup tackle Zach Banner enters, he yells at the assembled media, “Guys, we’re not here, why are you here?” Backup QB Josh Dobbs comes in wearing Apple earbuds, plastic bracelets that say “Humble over Hype” and a backpack covered in Marvel characters. (Rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph‘s styling isn’t much better — his Christmas sweater is a collage of Seinfeld’s George Costanza. They’re clearly taking cues from Roethlisberger, who occasionally shuffles through the locker room in ratty old UGGs slippers. Although, for the record, I own a pair as well, and they are ridiculously comfy.) Dobbs, on the other hand, looks like, well, a rocket scientist — which he is, having earned an aerospace engineering degree from Tennessee in 2017. He stays just long enough to calculate that his stellar backup appearance against the Ravens after Roethlisberger was shaken up — one (critical!) pass for 22 yards — earned him a career QB rating of 118.8.
Upstairs, after watching film on Carolina for most of the night — the four-day turnaround before Thursday Night Football is brutal — Tomlin addresses a packed media room. After addressing Le’Veon Bell’s extended holdout on Sunday — “We want volunteers not hostages” — he doesn’t say a word about his missing All-Pro back today. Instead, he raves about Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, going so far as to compare them to the Chicago Bears‘ iconic duo of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Hanging around Tomlin’s neck are two chains: One holds a cross, the other a whistle. An Army-green hat hides his exhausted eyes. At one point, Tomlin misspeaks, and instead of complimenting the Panthers on being “fundamental,” he calls them a “fundamentalist group.” When asked about the ridiculous, and dangerous, idea of recovering and preparing to play such a brutal, demanding game in less than four days, Tomlin says with a shrug that speaks volumes, “This is what you sign up for.”
Tomlin does manage to say one interesting, notable thing when speaking about the Steelers’ myriad personnel rotations on defense. By one count, the Steelers used their base defense in just 13 percent of the plays against the Ravens. It’s no longer strange to see the Steelers’ defense use seven defensive backs while rotating players into the action more often than the Penguins. It’s genius, really. To try to make up for the loss of defensive leader Ryan Shazier, who suffered a spinal injury in 2017, and the regression of former first-round pick, corner Artie Burns, Tomlin turned the Steel Curtain into the Steel Quilt in order to get the most out of his roster from top to bottom. (BTW: Although he’s not talking to the media, Shazier continues to recover and is acting as a de-facto coach this season. We exchanged a quick greeting in a doorway near the team cafeteria where Shazier was carrying a large cardboard box and looked to be hurrying to a meeting.)
With guys hurt and so many misses on draft picks in the secondary, Tomlin had no choice but to stop running so much static, zone base coverage (the kind that Patrick Mahomes easily exploited for six TD passes in Week 2) and try a concept I never thought I’d see in Pittsburgh: Embrace the Chaos. And there’s been plenty to embrace here: horrific injuries, blowout losses, unprecedented holdouts, ridiculous off-the-field issues — and that’s just in the past month. Defensively, though, embracing the chaos works for this team, and it means trying stuff like six defensive backs, sometimes seven, and asking 5-foot-9 slot corner Mike Hilton to blitz more often. What the Steelers really excel in, though, according to ESPN’s Matt Bowen, is “Big” dime, where instead of using the traditional four corners and two safeties, Pittsburgh uses three corners and three safeties. That extra “joker” safety is stronger against the run and better at covering a tight end, which tips the all-important matchup advantage to the Steelers.
All the moving pieces of this complicated scheme, like the second sugar huddle the Steelers defensive backs use after the initial defensive huddle and the myriad hand signals they employ to communicate before the snap, is remarkable to watch. In the 100-year-old chess match between offense and defense, this is the next move.
As Tomlin put it: “Sub is base in today’s NFL.”
To pull it off, Tomlin has to rely on next-level communication on the field (that’s taken time), guys making smarter and quicker pre-snap reads, and the accelerated development of young, explosive players like rookie safety Terrell Edmunds, who came in for a long soak on Monday to expedite his recovery after playing in all 61 snaps in Baltimore. He blamed the Steelers’ slow start on “bad communication” but says “we’re becoming the defense we wanted to be.” That’s in part because of Edmunds and his freakish athletic skills, which include a 41.5-inch vertical. Standing in a towel and Nike golf flip-flops, Edmunds glances up at the tile ceiling in the Steelers’ locker room. It’s at least 12 feet high, maybe more, but to mere mortals, honestly, it might as well be 50 feet. Edmunds can touch it, flat-footed.
Could he go higher?
“Maybe,” he says, “if you put a dollar up there or something.”
I guess the sky really is the limit for this defense.
IN THE OFFICE of Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, across from the top-of-the-line Nerf hoop (clear plastic backboard and spring-loaded rim) and positioned next to a black-and-white photo of the late Dan Rooney on the sidelines, there’s a newly framed photo Fichtner just added to his collection of favorites. It’s a shot from inside the Steelers’ locker room moments before their preseason game against the Eagles, and it shows Roethlisberger holding court like a statesman next to an enraptured group of young Steelers backup quarterbacks, including Dobbs and Mason Rudolph. “As soon as I saw that, I framed it and gave one to each guy,” Fichtner says. “You can feel the respect between the old guard and the young guns. I love the way it shows intensity and mentorship.”
In May, Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh that he was “surprised” the team used the 76th pick overall on Rudolph, and he seemed to balk at the idea of mentoring the rookie. Later, Roethlisberger said he was only joking. But after his public battles with former offensive coordinator Todd Haley, after throwing teammates like Martavis Bryant and others under the bus so often, you half expected Roethlisberger to need shoulder surgery after supposedly (repeatedly) contemplating retirement, after seeming to blame “the young guys” for losing to the Patriots in the 2016 playoffs — after so many divalike faux pas, my sense is that the picture in Fichtner’s office is proof that on top of having perhaps his best statistical season ever, Roethlisberger is also making a concerted effort to relate to, and lead, the team’s younger players, especially in Bell’s absence. (Remember: JuJu Smith-Schuster was all of 12 in 2009 when Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes with the toe-touch touchdown to win Super Bowl XLIII.)
“Ben hasn’t blinked,” Fichtner says. “You want your full complement of weapons. Well, Bell is an All-Pro player that’s not part of our group right now. But Ben has been a calming effect. He’s said, ‘Hey, he’s not here, so let’s move on, and when he does get here, great.’ Ben has helped not just in game planning and football things, but also, with Bell gone, the idea of saying to everyone, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be okay, we’re good. He’s not here, James will step up, so get over it, let’s do this.'”
The one thing Roethlisberger hasn’t changed? His uber-competitiveness. He’s a nut, even when it comes to stuff like ping pong or Nerf hoops. Each week, the Steelers quarterbacks draft college passers in their fantasy league, and they just now figured out that Roethlisberger has been calling Kirk Herbstreit for insider info. “He competes at everything, even in social settings,” Fichtner says. “It’s like ‘Oh, am I supposed to be chugging this beer right now because you’re chugging it?'”
JUST BEFORE THE 2017 draft, Steelers owner Art Rooney II was at a charity golf outing in Pittsburgh when Stanley Marks, a family friend and the chairman of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who has treated several of the Rooneys, offered him some unsolicited draft advice. “Listen, I don’t know anything about football talent or anything about drafting,” Marks told Rooney, “but this kid James Conner is someone you want in your locker room, someone you need on your football team.”
It was quite an endorsement coming from Marks. After all, in December 2015, he was the one who had to inform Conner, then a Pitt running back who had bulldozed his way to ACC Player of the Year, that he had Hodgkin lymphoma, stage 2b, and a tumor in his chest more than six inches wide that would require 12 chemo treatments over the next six months. The mass was so big, in fact, that it was pushing on Conner’s heart and blocking the drainage from the veins in the upper part of his body. “Oh my god, yes, I was taken aback, the mass was just enormous,” Marks says. “Frankly, had he waited a few more weeks, he could have had a major catastrophe in his brain or cardiac-wise.”
Wednesday afternoon, I was about to go stake out the LA Fitness on the north side of Pittsburgh, where Le’Veon Bell had played pick-up hoops the night before, when I got a call from Marks that saved me from what could have been an all-time career lowlight. (Even lower than the time I got taped to a movie-set goal post by Mark Wahlberg.) There seemed to be a message in the timing: As talented as Bell is, maybe it’s time to stop chasing his every move and analyzing his every tweet and focus, instead, on the Steelers’ amazing offensive line — and on Conner who, in two and a half years, has gone from chemo patient to an NFL MVP candidate.
“I have two sons, 32 and 35, and they’re great. I’m blessed,” Marks says. “But I tease them and tell them, ‘When you guys grow up, I want you to be like James Conner.’ Everyone in Pittsburgh has just fallen in love with the guy. He’s become an icon in this town.”
That’s thanks, in part, to Marks, who not only treated Conner but who vowed to a concerned Tomlin before the draft that there was just a 10-15 percent chance of a relapse. (That number has since fallen into single digits.) Conner trained through his chemo treatments, was declared cancer-free in May 2016 and returned to play for Pitt for his senior season. Before it went public that the Steelers had selected him in the third round of the 2017 draft, Marks got a message from the Steelers’ team doctor: He’s next. “We all just went crazy,” Marks says. Conner still goes to UPMC every three to four months for checkups and has become like a family member to Marks, who found himself crying tears of joy after Conner’s first NFL touchdown in Week 1. “To think where he was and what he’s been through, and to see all the success he’s had, I couldn’t help it,” Marks says. “A few weeks ago, he told me his goal was to make the Pro Bowl, and I said, ‘Great, I hope that happens.’ Inside I was thinking, really? Now I think he just might do it.”
Conner has been on an epic tear the past month, becoming the first player in NFL history with four games of 100 yards rushing, 50 yards receiving and a touchdown in the same season. No wonder when Marks bumped into Rooney recently, the Steelers owner grabbed him by the arm and said: “Boy, oh boy, you were certainly right about this one.”
THURSDAY NIGHT, A full seven weeks before Christmas, Heinz Field is already swathed in giant holiday wreaths and dotted with menorahs and Christmas trees. With the 6-2 Panthers in town, it seemed rather presumptuous to be celebrating so soon — for all of about 10 minutes, until Smith-Schuster, the most productive slot receiver in the league (and the only wideout to go trick-or-treating in his full uniform) scored on a 75-yard pass and, on the next series, pressure from T.J. Watt forced Cam Newton into gifting a pick-6 lob to Vince Williams. And just like that, with 13 points in 14 seconds, what was supposed to be some kind of epic Clash of Conference Heavyweights turned into, essentially, a second bye week for the Steelers. The same Steelers who started 1-2-1, with their fifth win in a row, have now established themselves as legit Super Bowl contenders.
Even the Steelers’ twitter account was straight fire.
“Thank u, next,” the team tweeted after the game, channeling Ariana Grande.
The scene in the Steelers’ locker room was as joyous — “rockin” is how Smith-Schuster described it — as I’ve ever seen one during the regular season. That also might have had something to do with the five days off Tomlin gifted the team after the game. Tomlin was tickled by the way the Steelers responded this week — as he passed defensive tackle Cam Heyward, the coach gave him what I’d describe as an enthusiastic swat across his backside. Heck, even Rooney, who quietly made his way around the chaos, thanking players personally, seemed to have a perma-grin on his face. There’s a sign just inside the locker room, written in the Steelers font, that says, “The standard is the standard,” and it must be especially rewarding for Rooney to see his team respond in such a powerful way after a rough September, a demanding week and the horrific events in Squirrel Hill. Roethlisberger, who threw more touchdowns than incompletions and turned in a perfect passer rating, wore his “Stronger Than Hate” cleats again. Most of the defensive backfield wore T-shirts with the same logo while warming up before the game. (The only bummer: After scoring his 10th TD, Conner was taken out of the game to be evaluated for a concussion.)
“It was a crazy week, a really short week,” says guard David DeCastro. “There were times we didn’t know what day it was. Guys were mad, irritable. September was a wakeup call for this team, but we’re firing on all cylinders now and building confidence. You can see it in our play, for sure.”
Near where DeCastro was talking — by the way, he said he was just channeling his inner hockey player when he went after Eric Reid for head-hunting Roethlisberger — there’s a wood and glass case in the middle of the Steelers’ locker room that holds 18 different championship hats, going all the way back to a vintage black-and-red cap the team earned for the 1994 AFC Central Championship. If the rest of the season is anything like this week in Pittsburgh, they’re going to need a bigger case.
With the locker room almost empty, Smith-Schuster floated past, heading toward the stadium exit wearing a bright-red tailored suit, red Gucci sneakers and a green tweed tie. He matched the holiday decorations at Heinz Field perfectly.
Only this Steelers team could transform such a sad, chaotic week into Christmas in November.
PITTSBURGH — The liveliest party of the year just took place in Heinz Field, where they danced so hard in the end zone that they ran out of touchdown celebrations, and that’s when they weren’t throwing Cam Newton to the turf.
The 52-21 pounding of the Panthers on Thursday tied for the most points allowed in Carolina history and showed that the Steelers look ready to make their own history. Carolina last gave up 52 points on Christmas Eve in 2000 against the Oakland Raiders.
If Ben Roethlisberger can continue to deliver masterpieces like this against a good defense, the Steelers — winners of five straight — might have their best chance at a Super Bowl since the early Mike Tomlin years.
Roethlisberger finished 22-of-25 passing for 328 yards, five touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3, the third such game of his career. He hit every throw, as if tossing into a big net. The Steelers worked the no-huddle offense, Roethlisberger’s specialty, on a short week, and the usually stout Panthers looked uneasy throughout.
Turns out this offense hadn’t unlocked everything it had this season. The Steelers had connected on three deep balls all season but hit two Thursday, a 75-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 53-yard score for Antonio Brown, who made rookie corner Donte Jackson look silly in press coverage.
After the Panthers marched 75 yards for the opening score, the Steelers flipped the game in 13 seconds with the Smith-Schuster touchdown on their first play from scrimmage and Vince Williams‘ interception for a touchdown off an ill-advised Newton throw out of the end zone. The Smith-Schuster score was the franchise’s longest-ever first play from scrimmage.
When Roethlisberger left the game with 14 minutes, 55 seconds in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had scored points on all seven of their drives that didn’t end in a clock run-out at halftime.
On defense, the Steelers (6-2-1) sacked Newton five times and knocked down him many others. A Christian McCaffrey running game that confused the Steelers on the first drive was quickly put in park.
This was such a thorough whooping that Eric Reid‘s helmet shot on Roethlisberger with 1:15 left in the third quarter — which prompted Reid’s ejection — was an attempt to revive a fight that was dead two hours earlier.
At times, the Steelers can turn unstoppable with a fast offense thriving with James Conner as the lead back — which will only complicate matters upon Le’Veon Bell’s potential return by the Tuesday deadline to play this season.
Either way, Pittsburgh is good. Rookie running back Jaylen Samuels scored. Tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James both scored. Even offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was feeling himself, opening the playbook for fullback screens in the second quarter.
Brown and Conner, who each scored Thursday, are the first pair of teammates with 10-plus touchdowns each in their team’s first nine games since Abner Haynes and Chris Burford with the 1962 Chiefs.
Roethlisberger, Brown & Co. have shown the ability to hit the throttle in previous seasons. Performances like this aren’t necessarily unique for this group, especially in prime-time games.
But the efficiency at every level is hard to ignore right now.
And they get Jacksonville, a past playoff hindrance, next Sunday.
Based on this warm-up act, they look ready for anything.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense needed one play to get into the end zone Thursday night, thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s deep connection with JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 75-yard touchdown on the Carolina Panthers with 10:18 left in the first half.
Thirteen seconds later, the Steelers hit pay dirt again when Vince Williams caught a wobbly pass from Cam Newton, who was under pressure from T.J. Watt, and returned the interception 17 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
The Steelers’ defense gave up a nine-play touchdown drive to open the game, but the offense responded when Smith-Schuster slipped past corner James Bradberry, and Roethlisberger found him in stride down the sideline. Bradberry bit on a short route, and Smith-Schuster did the rest.
This is the third time since 2001 that 21 points were scored in the first five minutes of a game. The other such games were Browns-Bengals in 2004 and Rams-Jaguars in 2005.