Le'Veon Bell's Holdout from a Functional Perspective

by Justis Mosqueda

It is opening week for the NFL and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell has yet to show up to work. Holdouts that last into the season are rarer now than ever, but Bell’s situation is particularly interesting, considering the NFL’s rules imposed on players who have been franchise tagged.

To understand how we got here, though, we need to first come to grips with why Bell is holding out. In the NFL, most contracts are fluffed up with non-guaranteed salaries that essentially work as team options. What matters the most for star players is guaranteed money, be it signing bonuses or guaranteed salaries, that both leverages the NFL’s cap system to punish the team for releasing them and ensures a roster spot for them long-term.

This summer, the final offer that Pittsburgh handed to Bell included just $10 million in guaranteed money. I say just $10 million, not to poke at the proletariat, but to explain how far off the Steelers were from the market that Todd Gurley would set for the running back position. In late July, Gurley signed a deal that included $45 million guaranteed. From Bell’s perspective, if he believes he has a similar value as Gurley, then what Pittsburgh came to the table with was just one-fifth of his fair rate in terms of guaranteed money. This, fundamentally, is why he is not playing ball games.

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By turning down a long-term contract with $10 million guaranteed over the life of it, Bell instead had the option to play under a franchise tag for the second straight year. A franchise tag is a one use per year option that NFL teams have to essentially retain the rights to a player who they fail to come to a long-term deal with. The tag price is calculated by position, averaging the top five salaries of each position to generate the cost. If a player’s previous salary was higher than the top five average, then he will make 120 percent of his previous salary.

When Bell was hit with a second franchise tag, one which will earn him a little over $900,000 in per game checks, he had three options:

  1. Sign a long-term deal with the Steelers.
  2. Play out the one-year deal.
  3. Refuse to play football.

What makes Bell’s holdout particularly unique and interesting is that the NFL creates a structure that limits the windows of when players who have been franchise tagged can sign an extension. This year, that deadline was July 16th. Even if Pittsburgh wanted to extend Bell to the exact contract that Gurley just signed, they would not legally be able to under the NFL’s rules. This also limits the trade value of a player like Bell, because unlike a Khalil Mack, a team would not be trading for the long-term rights of Bell, but just for his value on a one-year contract. A trade-and-sign is not possible in September for a player who has been franchise tagged, per the NFL’s self-imposed rules.

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To put it frankly, the first option of Bell’s three choices (sign a long-term deal) has been off the table entirely since July 16th. His options for the last two months have always been either A) play or B) not play. To advance to free agency, where Bell would no longer be limited by contract offers from the Steelers, he would have to play six games this season. If Bell does not want to play Week 1, there does not seem to be a point in him playing more than six games this year. In the end, it is likely that Bell’s 16-game, $14.5 million deal will likely play out as a six-game, $5.4 million deal. If this was Bell’s plan, he knew this on July 16th, as there is literally nothing that Pittsburgh could have done between then and now because of the league’s rules for franchise tag players. The issue that the Steelers’ offensive line seems to have taken with Bell is the fact that he did not give the team notice on a decision that was likely made two months ago.

Center Maurkice Pouncey said, “You can’t play football like that” and “Just man up and tell us what you’re going to do.” Guard David DeCastro said, “We all thought he’d be here today. He makes us kind of look stupid a little bit.” If you can see the forest through the trees here, those quotes are bubbles of frustration that reflect the Steelers offense realizing that they were falsely operating under the assumption that Bell was going to suit up for Week 1.

By not letting the team know that he was not going to show up for the regular season, a teammate could see Bell as “setting up” the team by not allowing them to plan for a post-Bell world this offseason. That is why Pouncey was frustrated with the timing of the news, not just the news itself. That is why DeCastro said they look stupid. Had Bell let the team know ahead of time, it would not have influenced Bell’s financial situation in Pittsburgh at all. The only influence that Bell had by not letting his team know about a decision made two months ago is a negative one for Pittsburgh, who now have to account for 10 Bell-less games on the fly.

Bell is not choosing money over teammates here. He’s choosing nothing over his teammates by simply not giving his team the courtesy of knowing what his plans are. No matter what end of the labor spectrum you are on here, that is simply the fact of the situation and why the team’s offensive linemen are reacting in the way they are. The NFL has leaned on team culture for establishing courtesy in these holdout situations, but Bell said to hell with history.

Moving forward, if Bell really does believe that a $900,000 per game check, beyond the six that he needs to play to accrue a year, is not worth risking his body for, there should be legitimate concerns about him playing in the 2018-2019 playoffs. Fans may not know this, but NFL playoff checks are surprisingly low relative to what stars make in the regular season. Last year, the wild card and divisional round games paid out between $26,000 and $28,000 per game. That is less than 1/30th of what Bell is turning down in per-game checks in the regular season.

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If Bell is at the point where he believes that the Steelers are owed nothing more than the six active games that he needs to hit to accrue an NFL season, not even so much as a heads up on a decision that he made two months ago, then why would we think he believes he owes them a playoff run? After all, he is missing these games to survive at full health into his next contract. Logically, missing out on $900,000 checks to risk injury for a $28,000 check makes absolutely no sense. In reality, we might be on a crash course for a star player sitting out a playoff game, something that will certainly set sports media on fire.

The other option, one that might be a bit of a stretch, is that Bell is purposely trying to create a toxic situation to set up his release. Judging by the offensive line’s reaction, it is fair to say that Pittsburgh is not too happy with their running back at the moment. If Pittsburgh comes to the conclusion that those six regular season games and $5.4 million are not enough to justify having Bell return to the locker room, they may just let him walk. Remember, Bell has yet to actually sign his tender. A few years ago, the Carolina Panthers famously rescinded cornerback Josh Norman’s franchise tag when he refused to sign it. This led to him hitting unrestricted free agency and signing a five-year, $65 million contract with the Washington Redskins after the major waves of free agency were over.

The Panthers rescinded Norman’s contract a week before the draft, which was unprecedented at the time. Rescinding a franchise tag in September would be completely unordinary in the NFL, but nothing about this situation is. If the Steelers did decide that those six games were not worth the trouble, Bell could hit the open market as an in-season ringer, the only possible way he can possibly sign a long-term contract before the 2019 offseason. Between the NFL’s 32 franchises, there is still nearly $400 million in cap space available for the 2018 regular season. Even though this would be a late addition for a franchise, one would have to imagine that there would be suitors.