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Kevin Gorman: Le’Veon Bell’s absence bad for business

Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, September 5, 2018 8:00 p.m
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell carries through the Packers defense during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, at Heinz Field.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are saying Le’Veon Bell’s absence is now “bigger than business” after the All-Pro running back was a no-show again Wednesday at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side.

What started as a game of (franchise) tag by the Steelers has turned into a stare down with one of their superstars, one that could last longer than any of us ever imagined.

Before you could blink, Steelers players went from being supportive of Bell’s skipping OTAs, minicamp, training camp and preseason games for the second consecutive season to sounding off on his absence now that it’s the week of their season opener at the Cleveland Browns.

Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, an offensive captain who said on Labor Day that you could “count on it” that Bell would be back by Wednesday, was among the offensive linemen who were quick to turn on their teammate for staying away.

“Now that it’s game time, and you know you have $14 million looming out there and you’re still not here and your team wants you here, at this point, we’ve got (James) Conner,” Pouncey said. “The business part, I get it. You’re a little mad that things didn’t get done. All of us would be hurt a little bit in that situation but … we have a game this Sunday, now we’re all the way into the game plan, as Wednesday goes, and you’re still not here? That’s bigger than business.”

The Steelers used to be in the business of winning Super Bowls, but it’s been a decade since they won their sixth Lombardi Trophy. A season that had 10-to-1 Super Bowl odds is being sabotaged before it even begins because one player’s business became bigger than the team.

The Steelers will never admit as much, of course.

“We want to win a Super Bowl, no matter who’s here,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “Whether it’s someone’s first or last year, none of that should matter. We know that he’s one of the best in the business and he helps every week. When he gets here, I hope he’ll be ready to go.”

At the moment, that’s more if than when. Bell could elect not to report for the first 10 weeks of the season before signing his $14.54 million franchise-tag tender. A possibility: Bell could return in Week 7, when the Steelers have a bye, which would allow an extra week to prepare for the Browns’ Oct. 28 visit to Heinz Field.

That’s a scenario that’s starting to make sense, especially after Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, told Sirius XM NFL Radio “you can read in-between those lines” that wear and tear is a concern for his client, who had a career-high 406 touches last season.

The Steelers took that a step further when Pouncey said they will treat Bell’s absence the same way they would an injured teammate.

“You can just chalk it up as an injury, next man up,” Pouncey said. “Obviously, we’ve had guys go down before him – even myself – and had guys that stepped up and played a major role. … It’s just like he’s injured, like he’s not here. It’s not affecting us one bit. Trust me. We still went out there and did 40 plays in practice and everything was good.”

That confidence rings hollow when you consider the Steelers lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV without Pouncey. The Steelers also lost Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ryan Shazier to a season-ending spinal-cord injury last season, only for opponents like the Patriots and Jaguars to exploit the soft spot in their defense.

Conner promises to be a better backup to Bell than the Steelers had for Shazier, especially when Tyler Matakevich’s shoulder injury forced them to sign Sean Spence off the street. But the former Pitt All-American is unproven as an NFL running back, and second-stringer Stevan Ridley’s 1,000-yard season was six years ago.

The Steelers have said they are “disappointed” that Bell hasn’t signed, but their front office is as much to blame for this mess.

The Steelers stood firm after Bell threatened to retire if they used the franchise tag on him again and he turned down their five-year contract offer, and only dug in by saying if Bakari “would like to talk further, he has the phone number to our offices.”

That’s their way of saying, “You’re it.”

Now, the Steelers are about to start a season without Bell, a player whose teammates are quick to call one of the best in the business and even quicker to call out for being a no-show.

That’s not just bigger than business. It’s bad for business.

Count on that.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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