Steelers adjust to starting training camp without Le'Veon Bell once again
Antonio Brown floated into Saint Vincent on a helicopter. Vince Williams pulled up in a pickup truck, emerging shirtless while sporting a black studded vest in an homage to pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Eli Rogers walked around campus in stylish dress clothes and hat after signing a one-year contract Wednesday.
For the second year in a row, though, much of the attention on reporting day at Steelers training camp centered on the one person who wasn’t in attendance.
Running back Le’Veon Bell, as he predicted months before negotiations failed to produce a long-term deal, was nowhere to be found.
Bell’s absence is all too familiar to coach Mike Tomlin, who didn’t have his star running back join the Steelers last season until Labor Day — six days before the season opener.
“I’m focused on guys that are here,” Tomlin said. “My mentality regarding Le’Veon is very similar to the way it was a year ago. Both sides tried in earnest to get a deal done, but we weren’t able to do that. Now, we transition to our 2018 season.”
Like 2017, the Steelers tried to beat a mid-July deadline to get Bell under contract so he would be with his teammates in training camp. Like last year, no deal was struck, tabling discussions until the offseason while Bell plays on the franchise tag, this year’s figure worth $14.54 million.
The difference is, this season likely will be Bell’s last with the Steelers. The franchise tag figure will cost the Steelers more than $25 million in 2019, and Bell has waited patiently to test a free-agent market that was re-set this week when the Los Angeles Rams gave running back Todd Gurley a four-year, $60 million contract with $45 million in guarantees.
“We’ll see how things work out,” center Maurkice Pouncey said Wednesday. “Le’Veon’s a heck of a player, honestly, and no matter what, he is going to get paid eventually.”
Last year, Bell’s decision to skip training camp and the preseason was viewed as a reason the Steelers got off to a 3-2 start. It took four games for Bell to have a 100-yard rushing performance. Once the Steelers got going, they reeled off eight wins in a row.
Bell finished third in the NFL with 1,291 yards rushing and was second to Gurley with 1,946 scrimmage yards, but his 4.0 yards per carry was almost a full yard less than his 2015-16 average of 4.9.
“He came in and still was the best back in the league,” Pouncey said. “Maybe I’ll text him and say to come a week earlier so we’re not as rusty in the beginning.”
Tomlin said he has kept in “normal” communication with Bell, but he has no expectations on when the running back will join his teammates.
“Boy, that’s a cute question,” Tomlin said. “Again, I’m going to stay focused on where I’m at, respectfully. I’m done with the Le’Veon questions.”
Bell has given no indication his absence will extend into the regular season even though he could sit out as many as 10 games and gain credit toward free agency in 2019. Steelers veterans don’t envision that scenario playing out.
“At the end of the day, I still think he will be here for Game 1,” defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “All you can concern yourself with is who’s here. It’s not a discredit to him because you want him to get what he deserves, but we’ve got to worry about getting better here.”
Does Bell’s anticipated departure in ’19 put a greater sense of urgency on the players to win a Super Bowl this season? Ben Roethlisberger is the only holdover from the team’s Super Bowl XLIII championship against Arizona and only a handful of players remain from the Super Bowl XLV team that lost to Green Bay.
“Time is running out for everybody,” Pouncey said. “I know it’s all fun and games at the beginning but, man, it’s time to win. It’s been too long.”
After stepping out of the helicopter that landed on a grassy field above the campus dorms, Brown said he realizes the magnitude of the upcoming season.
“Every year there’s always pressure to win a trophy,” he said. “This year, there will be added pressure.”
Unlike Bell, Brown got his big-money deal from the Steelers, signing a record-setting contract in the 2017 offseason.
“Contracts don’t matter, money don’t matter,” he said. “At this point from now on out, it’s being in great shape and helping the team win.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.