Column: Le’Veon Bell due to return Week 7


Sam Riche/TNS

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (26) runs upfield in the first half of the team’s game against the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 12, 2017, in Indianapolis.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

It was a tough weekend for Pittsburgh football fans.

First, the Pitt Panthers got trounced by Central Florida, 45-14, Saturday. That loss dropped Pitt’s record to 2-3 and marked its third loss in four games. On Sunday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers followed up by losing their second game in three tries, also bringing the team’s record below .500.

But downtrodden Pittsburgh fans received some hopeful news Monday with word that Steelers’ running back Le’Veon Bell is expected to return in Week 7.

This comes as a new development in the ongoing Bell holdout saga. It began in the summer, when the 2017 All-Pro running back turned down Pittsburgh’s long-term offer of five years and $70 million, instead demanding somewhere in the neighborhood of $17 million a year — an unprecedented amount for the running back position.

The Steelers instead offered Bell a one-year deal under the $14.5 million franchise tag, a deal Bell turned down, saying it didn’t deliver enough long-term security for a player who provided a large portion of the team’s offense. The two sides held firm through training camp, and tensions reached a high point when Bell’s own linemen ridiculed him in the lead-up to Week 1.

NFL Week 1 came and went with no sign of Bell returning. In his stead, Pitt product James Conner impressed in the opener with 192 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Bell, meanwhile, showed up sporadically in the news, jet skiing in Miami and promoting his new rap album at a nightclub.

Then last week, it appeared Bell might never play in a Steelers’ uniform again, with ESPN’s Adam Schefter reporting that the team was actively seeking to trade their estranged superstar.

Some fans rejoiced at the notion of parting ways with Bell, as many have grown weary with what they perceive as petty drama and arrogant selfishness on his part. But as the season progressed, it became clearer the Steelers’ offense wasn’t the same without its dynamic playmaker.

Pittsburgh scored zero points in the second half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3 but managed to hold on for the win thanks to a 20-point first-half lead. Against the Ravens at home in Week 4, the team officially looked lost, once again scoring no points in the second half of a 26-14 loss. The run game was nonexistent, with Conner rushing just nine times for 19 yards.

Watching his former team unable to move the ball in a crucial home game might have been enough to make Bell want to come back right away as the City’s savior, but an incident elsewhere in the league likely encouraged him to hold out longer.

Seattle Seahawks’ safety Earl Thomas — a six-time Pro-Bowler and key member of the team’s Super Bowl-era “Legion of Boom” — was also engaged in a contract holdout with his team in the offseason, demanding the Seahawks either renegotiate his deal or trade him. Unlike Bell, Thomas caved and begrudgingly reported to training camp on a short-term deal, but skipped practices each week to preserve his aging body. He didn’t want to risk suffering a long-term injury while playing on a short-term contract.

Thomas’ worst fears were realized Sunday when he broke his leg during a game versus the Arizona Cardinals, ending his season. While being carted off the field, Thomas expressed his frustrations at the organization with one final gesture — a middle finger directed at the Seattle sideline.

Instead of interpreting this gesture as an act of disrespect or vulgarity, public opinion seemed to sway in favor of Thomas, whom many felt had been given a raw deal by the Seahawks after many years of dedicated service.

The injury only further served Bell’s cause — that it’s not worth risking a career-ending injury while playing on a contract that only provides one year of security. Bell himself weighed in on the issue by commenting on an ESPN Instagram picture, saying “I’ll continue to be the ‘bad guy’ for ALL of us.”

Well, it looks like Bell will only continue to be the “bad guy” for a few more weeks, and will miss just two more games with the team versus the Falcons and Bengals. It appears the ache of watching the Steelers languish in his absence was just too much to bear — although it more likely has to do with the fact that he’ll show up just in time to still make $9.4 million of his franchise tender.

Regardless, Pittsburgh fans will rejoice upon seeing one of the best runners in the game back in black and gold — and more plays like these: