Rob Rossi: What Le'Veon Bell can learn from Penguins' negotiations with stars
Le'Veon Bell probably isn't thinking a lot about Sidney Crosby.
Why would he?
Crosby is a Penguin. Bell is a Steeler. Aside from each excelling at their respective professions as representatives of Pittsburgh, Crosby and Bell appear to have very little in common.
In fact, it's entirely possible that Bell doesn't (as Crosby never did) want to take a chance on ending a wonderful relationship with Pittsburgh. But if this is true of Bell, he should consider a conversation Crosby and I had a few years ago when the NHL's last labor dispute raged.
It was then that Crosby shared his thoughts on becoming a free agent in the NHL.
“I honestly never even thought about it,” he said.
What Crosby went on to say was the prospect of going through a public bidding war for his services sounded like a distasteful waste of his already limited free time. Also, he had a good thing with the Penguins and he was smart enough not to tempt fate, because ...
“I just think once you start thinking about (becoming a free agent) ... can you un-think it?” Crosby said. “It seems like things could move quickly once you have that thought. Since I've always been happy here, why risk it?”
Negotiations between the Penguins and Crosby on his current contract went smoothly and not without some surprise in the summer of 2012. Under its previous collective bargaining agreement, NHL clubs had to purchase insurance on their top six player contracts.
Under the new contract, the Penguins were committing to 12 years and more than $100 million for a captain who could not be insured against concussion.
It was a risk.
The Penguins' willingness to take the risk was not lost on Crosby, who missed chunks of two previous seasons because of concussion symptoms. It confirmed his belief that the Penguins were as much a family to him as an employer.
The very next summer, the Penguins kept Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in the family fold with long-term third contracts for those players.
The Steelers are as close to “family” as an NFL franchise can get.
However, Bell faces a decision far different than the one Crosby did earlier this decade. One difference is that NFL contracts, unlike those in the NHL, are not guaranteed. Another is that Bell is neither the Steelers' franchise player nor the player who most significantly enhances the value of said franchise player. And if you think of Bell only as the Steelers' third-most-important asset, you might understand why his push for a long-term contract isn't going as smoothly as did new deals for Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.
It's not that the Steelers don't want Bell. They do.
They just can't afford to give him everything — or even close to everything — he deserves. They already afforded such luxuries to Roethlisberger and Brown, just as the Penguins did on the current contracts for Crosby and Malkin.
Bell is paying the price for happening to be a great player playing on a team with two generational superstars. You know who on these Penguins has paid a price for playing with Crosby and Malkin?
Kris Letang paid that price.
The full no-movement clause he sought (and deserved) on his third contract with the Penguins was deemed unavailable because such a clause had been given to Crosby and Malkin. The Penguins were happy to guarantee Letang millions to match his jersey number on a maximum-length deal, but ownership did not want to tie management to three players who called their own shots.
A successful franchise always limits the number of players who call their own shots.
Had Letang been unwilling to give — albeit just by a little bit — on that one area, the Penguins would have traded him in the summer of 2013. They wouldn't have won that trade, but to commit to Letang completely on his terms was to commit to assisted suicide in a salary-cap system.
At least, that was how the Penguins viewed their negotiations with Letang — an amazing player they wanted badly to keep in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers might not want to keep Bell in Pittsburgh as badly as they have said publicly, but it is clear they want to keep him. Otherwise, they would not negotiate with him at all and call his bluff to sit out the season.
They will keep negotiating. He will play.
And Bell, like every professional athlete, should act according to his or her own best interests. Careers are too short. So, too, is life.
Still, if Bell wants to be a Steeler beyond one more NFL season, he should consider that even Malkin and Brown — a couple of future Hall-of-Famers in their respective games — each gave a little to stay in Pittsburgh and do a lot.
Letang gave even a little more. Bell needs to decide, as did Letang, if giving a little more is too much.
Bell also might want to keep in mind that Crosby was wise to wonder “if you can un-think” something once you start thinking it.
Rob Rossi is a contributing columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Real_RobRossi