Steelers bid goodbye to Le'Veon Bell, pick apart his locker
Memories are about all that remain of Le'Veon Bell inside the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room.
Physical mementos are getting scarce.
Players made sure of that after practice Wednesday afternoon when a small group, with linebacker Bud Dupree serving as a ringleader, began rummaging through Bell's belongings that had gone untouched for months. Like buzzards picking on a carcass, Bell's name plate was removed and players dished out shoes and other apparel to interested parties.
"Anyone want a suit?" a player said, holding up clothing that may or may not have come from Bell's locker.
So much for Bell's unceremonious end to the season passing by without fanfare. One day after the three-time Pro Bowl running back declined to sign his franchise-tag tender, officially preventing him from playing for the Steelers in 2018, his teammates cleaned out his locker for him.
The symbolic gesture spoke louder than any words the Steelers veterans offered about Bell as they prepared to play the final seven games -- and perhaps a few more in the postseason -- without him.
"I'm only going to talk about players who are on this team," said center Maurkice Pouncey, who was critical of Bell when he didn't report in September. "So if you all are going to ask any Le'Veon questions, you're wasting your time."
Defensive tackle Cam Heyward, who joked in a radio interview that he would pop champagne once the 4 p.m. deadline passed Tuesday and the Bell drama would cease, was more subdued.
"Just get back to football," Heyward said. "That's all we can do. Wish him the best. The train doesn't stop for anybody."
It didn't stop for Bell, who kept his teammates in the dark about his intentions right up until the 4 p.m. deadline.
"It sucks when a guy doesn't have to answer his own questions," Heyward said, "but if they're not on the team, I'm not worried about them."
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he sent a text to Bell on Tuesday in an attempt to persuade him to return by the deadline. It went unreturned.
"I said I hoped he was going to show up and if he wasn't, I wished him nothing but the best," Roethlisberger said. "He was a great teammate, a great football player. To each his own and what they want to walk away from."
What Bell walked away from was the final seven weeks of a $14.5 million franchise-tag tender and a chance to contribute for the Steelers (6-2-1) in their quest for a third consecutive AFC North title and their first Super Bowl appearance in eight years.
The best-case scenario for @LeVeonBell ? @KyleBrandt says it's a big deal with the @Ravens and he forms the LL Cool J backfield with @Lj_era8 & @realbuckallen ... and you CAN call it a comeback. @llcoolj | #RavensFlock pic.twitter.com/TQLoORmWXa— GMFB (@gmfb) November 14, 2018
"You just move on with life," said guard David DeCastro, another player critical of Bell's stance two months ago. "I just wish he would have communicated a little better, but it is what it is.
"It's nice (that it's over). We can move on. I think we have all kind of moved on since we've won, to be honest."
With Bell's replacement, James Conner, helping to lead the way, the Steelers have won five in a row heading into their game Sunday at Jacksonville. Conner has 771 yards rushing, which ranks third in the NFL. He also has the second-most scrimmage yards in the NFL.
"Nothing changes," Conner said. "What is it, Week 10, Week 11? Just do what I've been doing all of these weeks."
Heyward never thought Bell would stay away from the team for an entire season.
"No, but I'm not going to cry over spilled milk," he said. "We've got capable guys. If one guy is not here, that doesn't stop the goal. We move on."
Roethlisberger couldn't imagine a player in the prime of his career sitting out a season.
"Part of the great thing about this sport is the band of brothers and the group of guys in here and being with them," Roethlisberger said. "That's what keeps me coming back after so many years. To each his own, each guy has their own motives and motivations.
"I can't comment on him. I am glad that we don't have to talk about this anymore."