Tim Benz: NFL did Steelers a $9.5M favor with Le’Veon Bell
The NFL may have done a $9.5 million favor for the Pittsburgh Steelers. And no one seemed to pick up on it.
When Kevin Colbert hosted his Q&A with local media members Feb. 20, he announced the team wouldn’t use the transition tag on running back Le’Veon Bell.
After a year-long contractual tug o’ war in 2018, that decision finally made Bell an unrestricted free agent.
Along the way in his comments, Colbert referenced that the price of the transition tag would’ve been $14.54 million.
In and of itself, that passing revelation was newsworthy.
After all, prior to that news conference, no one in the public knew for sure that the tag price was going to be $14.54 million. For months, there had been uncertainty over whether Bell would get that high of a tender due to the fact that he sat out all of last year.
There was a school of thought that Bell’s year-long absence would cause the transition tag to be set at $9.5 million, the projected standard figure for a running back.
Bell and his agent, Adisa Bakari, obviously wanted the number to be at $14.54 million since that was the 2018 contract offer advanced by the Steelers via the franchise tag.
The player got his wish. Because as Colbert volunteered during his news conference, the number the Steelers would have needed to account for against their cap while Bell was tagged, once again, would have been $14.54 million.
OK. Why? How did that number come to be? Was there an arbitration decision none of us knew occurred? Did the Steelers even bother seeking to get it down to $9.5 million? Was this an NFL Management Council decision?
And if the number had been lower, would the Steelers have run the risk of transitioning Bell at $9.5 million, even though they avoided it at $14.54 million?
None of these questions were asked that afternoon. So I contacted the Steelers media relations department to seek clarity. They referred me to the NFL instead.
I couldn’t get anyone there to speak on the record. However, the next day (Feb. 21), I was at least told by someone within the league office via email that there was no arbitration hearing, and it was just an interpretation of the CBA. I was also told that any other details as to why the team did what it did regarding the tag would have to come from the team itself.
Unfortunately, Colbert didn’t have any more news conferences again until this week at the NFL combine.
Fast forward to this interview on ProFootballTalk.com with Mike Florio and Chris Simms conducted on Wednesday.
At 3:59 of the interview, Colbert and Florio had the following exchange:
Colbert: “We made the decision not to use the transition number because once it was determined that it would be in excess of $14 million, we didn’t want to have that part of our salary cap and have it held up for an unknown.”
Florio: “Who is it that made that determination, was that a management council thing? Was there a grievance I don’t know about? I know there were two opinions as to what the transition tag would be. How did it come to be $14 million?”
Colbert: “That’s the number that they gave us.”
I assume “they” is referring to the NFL Management Council, or some other league governing body. That’s also what Florio wrote in the corresponding story with the video of the interview.
Colbert expanded on that second answer and reiterated, “Once we found out that the number would be the $14.5 (million), we said ‘No, we can’t afford to lock up that amount of money.’ ”
There are two significant points to extract from this discovery.
First of all, that’s a big win for the players. That’s a league management interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement in favor of a player and against an organization. That sets a precedent for other agents to follow if they decide to take their players down a path similar to Bell’s.
Secondly, it sure sounds like the Steelers would have been ready to transition tag Bell if the price was at $9.5 million, and that additional $5 million in cost against the cap scared them off that decision.
Previously, I wrote that regardless of the transition-tag price decision, I didn’t want the Steelers to tag Bell again. It would’ve been a futile effort. He simply wasn’t going to play here on a tag. Period.
Would it have been nice to control a potential trade option for Bell, or maybe force him to sit out a second-straight year? Sure. That would’ve been fun.
If Bell wants to manipulate the rules to his advantage and hurt the Steelers, why shouldn’t the franchise have the same satisfaction of doing something similar to him?
If I’m Colbert, though, I’d rather have $9.5 million more in cap space than a little satisfaction.
And maybe an under-discussed league interpretation saved the Steelers from making a major mistake.