Tim Benz: Le’Veon Bell’s final Steelers season already mirroring those of Bonds, Jagr
The Steelers have a game tonight. Le’Veon Bell won’t be playing in it. He won’t be playing in the next three either.
And who knows, maybe beyond. That’d be stupid of him to miss regular-season paychecks. But with the way this guy has handled himself over the past two offseasons, I put nothing past him.
Hey, he’s left millions in guaranteed money on the table. What’s another $856,000 per week, right?
One thing has become clear, whenever the 2018 season ends, Bell will be done in Pittsburgh. If the Steelers couldn’t meet his demands the past two springs, they won’t be able to do so once the bidding for his services hits the open market.
And the team surely won’t give him $20.9 million for a third-consecutive franchise tag.
So, that’ll be it.
It’s as clear now as it will be in the winter. It’s as obvious a swan song as it was for James Harrison last year. For Barry Bonds in 1992. For Jaromir Jagr in 2001.
All MVPs. All Pittsburgh sports heros. All exited in bitter divorces.
Harrison was cut after forcing his way out of town by allegedly leaving the sidelines early from games and sleeping in meetings. Then he signed with the hated Patriots. Jagr pouted through his last year, requesting a trade and publicly arguing with his coach Ivan Hlinka. Bonds suggested Pittsburgh fans were racist for their treatment of former teammate Bobby Bonilla . And his agent blew off any chance of Bonds staying long before spring training started.
The cases of Jagr and Bonds are very similar to Bell’s. Unlike Harrison, those two were still in their prime in their respective final Pittsburgh seasons, and their teams were highly competitive. Bonds won the MVP as the Pirates went to the NLCS for a third-straight year. Jagr won the Art Ross as the Penguins went to the Eastern Conference Final.
If this season is anything like last year, Bell would be going out in exactly the same manner. The 2017 schedule was a roller coaster away from the field, but a Pro Bowl and playoff season on it. There’s no reason — barring injury — to assume this year would be any different.
Mirroring Bonds and Jagr, Bell is at the height of his powers athletically while at the nadir of his relationship with Pittsburgh fans. With every passing tweet, contract demand, and rap lyric, he alienates himself a little bit more.
By the end of their final seasons here, there was almost a sense of guilt when rooting for Jagr and Bonds individually, but you had to because the stakes for the team were so high. My bet is that will be the case this year with Bell as well.
The Steelers should contend for at least the AFC North crown again, and Bell will be a big reason why. However, there is a mercenary vibe to his presence on the team this year. For as much as his individual achievements will help the collective good, there’s a knowledge that every carry Bell has will be with an eye toward how he’ll be raising his asking price in free agency.
It shouldn’t be that way. As we saw with Jagr and Bonds, they were drafted here, too. They blossomed here. The end of what should be a legendary career here shouldn’t feel like an audition for the rest of the league.
Yet it did for those two, and it does for Bell.
Bell could go a long way toward changing that legacy if he shows All-Pro form again en route to at least a Super Bowl berth, if not a championship. Bonds never got to a World Series in Pittsburgh. Jagr was tagged with the eternal “he couldn’t win a Cup without Mario” label.
By the way, Mario never won one as player without Jagr either.
It’s not quite the same thing though, is it?
Even after spurning the Penguins for a potential return and deciding to join the Flyers, Jagr’s legacy in Pittsburgh seems to be largely repaired. His worldwide ageless-icon status is something we seem to cherish in Western Pennsylvania because it started here, he played his best here, and he won here.
Bonds has actually returned on a few occasions in recent years to more cheers than boos . Maybe that’s because there has been so much losing baseball since he left, it’s a nice reminder that Pittsburgh at least came close to having a World Series baseball team once since 1979.
Time could heal wounds for Bell in that regard, too. Already Harrison got cheers at Brett Keisel’s “Shear Da’ Beard” fundraiser. Plus, many Steelers fans were applauding his recent criticism of the Steelers undisciplined locker room.
Ironic, right, coming from him? Yeah. I thought so, too. However, some in the fan base ate it up.
Whenever Bell does report, he could go a long way to securing some of that good will after his Pittsburgh playing days by doing three simple things: winning, playing well, and saying nothing else dumb.
It appears all three are easier said than done.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.