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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: In blink of eye, Steelers' Le'Veon Bell morphed into bad guy

| Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, 8:36 p.m.
PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 14: Le’Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Heinz Field on January 14, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 14: Le’Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Heinz Field on January 14, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Le’Veon Bell saga has changed greatly in a short time. First, Bell was supposed to turn up at Steelers training camp the Monday before the Sept. 9 opener at Cleveland.

Then, Bell was supposed to show the subsequent Wednesday.

Bell didn’t, so the Steelers offensive line declared war on Bell. (Then backtracked.)

For a millisecond, Bell was the good guy, or at least got some sympathy. As ex-Steelers James Farrior tweeted: “Never speak about another man’s contract. Wish the man good luck and hope he gets back soon. That’s it.”

But Bell obliterated any existing goodwill with his jet-ski video, rap video and cheeky posts on social media. Ex-Steeler James Harrison piled on, saying Bell should sign, practice and fake injury, thus cheating the Steelers out of money.

Harrison’s statement did Bell zero good at any level. If Bell plays this season and gets legitimately hurt, many will assume it’s a con. (Maybe it will be.)

Bell morphed into the bad guy. But the Steelers still needed him.

The assumption: Bell reports after 10 games. Perhaps the Steelers are 7-3 and Bell adds new life, some legs and some yards.

That was the hoped-for best-case scenario.

But it turns out Bell doesn’t need to be on the roster for six games, as thought, to be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Bell goes UFA unless the Steelers franchise him again, which they won’t, let alone for a $25 million price tag.

So, Bell probably won’t play at all in 2018. That was likely his plan all along.

Now Bell and his situation are so poisonous, the new debate is: If Bell does decide to play, should the Steelers rescind his franchise tag? He might go somewhere else and hurt the Steelers, or embarrass the Steelers like Harrison did last season when he finagled his way to rival New England.

In three weeks, Bell went from merely missing training camp to being Public Enemy No. 1.

That’s an amazing timeline in terms of brevity, action and attitude.

The Steelers badly misjudged the situation but can’t be faulted. Everybody got bamboozled, including ownership, management, players, fans and media. Bell lied about his intent. Shame on whoever believed him. But most did.

Had the Steelers known what would happen, they would have traded Bell before camp, or at least tried.

It’s tough to imagine a scenario where Bell reports and plays this year.

But if he does, the Steelers must pull the franchise tag and ditch Bell.

The Steelers can’t count on getting last year’s version of Bell, let alone the still-better version of Bell from seasons prior.

Bell looked chunky in his jet-ski and rap videos. Would Bell be fat if he reports?

Would Bell be high and subject to suspension when he reports? (That’s a reasonable question about someone with two previous drug bans.)

Would Bell be invested and dedicated to his craft? It’s fair to wonder if Bell ever again will be.

It took Bell four games to really get going after skipping training camp in 2017. How long would it take Bell to find a proper gear now, given the cumulative effect of having missed two straight training camps, then playing just a fraction of this season?

Bell isn’t worth the trouble, especially not at $855,000 per game. Too much risk, and reward not likely.

James Conner isn’t a No. 1 back, not really. He’d be fine as part of a running-back committee. But the Steelers don’t currently have the right components for that.

But the Steelers can’t ever bring Bell back. He’s proven he can’t be trusted. He’s toxic. Bell is for himself, and himself only. Narcissistic to a degree that might even shame Antonio Brown.

Any team that’s thinking about giving Bell what he wants in free agency should remember that.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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