Tim Benz: Why I’m still hoping Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell reports
The latest in a never-ending stream of reports about Le’Veon Bell’s future has come from Adam Schefter at ESPN. He claims the running back is unlikely to report to the Steelers before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline.
If that’s true, it’s too bad.
I’ve seen way too many high-quality Steelers teams derailed by late-season injuries to star running backs. What if something like that should happen to James Conner?
The Steelers might not have beaten the Patriots in New England even if Bell stayed in the 2016 AFC championship game beyond the first quarter. But they were not competitive without him.
When Bell got hurt at the end of the 2014 regular season, the Steelers lost their playoff game at home to the Baltimore Ravens with a motley collection of reserve running backs totaling just 41 yards on the ground.
Willie Parker went down in Game 15 of the 2007 campaign, and Najeh Davenport took over. He had 25 yards on the ground in the playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
A badly injured Jerome Bettis tried to play against New England in the 2001 AFC title game. He had 8 yards on nine carries, and the Steelers lost.
Barry Foster was en route to a 1,200-yard season in 1993 until he got hurt in Week 9. Even though LeRoy Thompson proved a capable backup, the Steelers were defeated in the first round of the playoffs by the Kansas City Chiefs.
The best thing for the Steelers is to see Bell report on Tuesday. Then, they should give him exactly what he has wanted all along: zero injury risk. Don’t play him until absolutely necessary, if that eventuality ever occurs.
Conner has done enough at this point to earn being the primary running back for rest of this season, at least.
A perfect scenario for the Steelers would be Bell showing up and practicing to work his way back into shape. Don’t even bother using him unless Conner gets hurt. Muddle along in that given game with Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels and then dress Bell the next week.
If the Steelers are fortunate enough to make the playoffs, the team should suit him up as Conner’s backup in an effort to avoid a 2016 Foxboro nightmare scenario.
Logically, Bell should like that idea. He’d make about $5 million and be protected from injury beyond practice. However, I do understand the risk of connecting the word “logic” to a conversation about Le’Veon Bell’s strategy.
Plus, if Bell is as big of a Conner fan as he positions himself to be, he shouldn’t be put off at the notion of being Conner’s backup in the midst of this dream season.
For those of you scoffing at this notion and rolling your eyes at the concept of bringing Bell back in good standing, keep two things in mind from Thursday night’s victory over the Carolina Panthers.
First of all, the image of Conner getting evaluated for a concussion on the sideline should be a stark reminder of how fleeting success can be for an NFL running back.
Secondly, as recently as before kickoff of that game, Art Rooney II told SiriusXM NFL Radio that the team “hoped to have some communication” with Bell over the weekend and that he expected Bell to come back this week.
So, apparently, the team that offered him a long-term contract and $14.5 million this year on the franchise tag — and could’ve rescinded it — still is, at least, working toward a result that will have Bell on the roster for the remainder of the season.
I’ll be the lone voice in a din of trumpets screaming things like:
“Stay away, Bell! The Steelers are better off without you.”
“I’ll drive him to the airport to get him outta tahn!”
“Dem Stillers don’t need ‘at Lay-ve-on!”
“I’d rather lose without Bell than win with him.”
That feels good to say. And you may nod your head in sanctimonious agreement when you hear someone say it on television or the radio.
That is, until one of those things actually happens. Until you face a morning after a Steelers loss in the playoffs when Conner was injured. Or until you are celebrating a playoff win that Bell helped your team attain if Conner goes down. These things may not happen, but they could.
For those making the “I’ll drive him to the airport” claims, while you’ve been planning the fastest route there from South Side during rush hour, I’ve been remembering history.
And, if what is past is prologue, I’m willing to shelve the bluster and welcome back Bell as the world’s most expensive and annoying insurance policy for a few more months.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.