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Kevin Gorman: Steelers come up empty in Le'Veon Bell saga

The 4 p.m. deadline passed Tuesday without a signature on the franchise tag the Pittsburgh Steelers tendered Le’Veon Bell, a silent ending to the saga that has shadowed their season.

That marked the official end to the possibility of Bell playing this season, one that grew more remote with each passing week. It also means that Bell committed the cardinal sin of putting himself ahead of his team and effectively ended his Steelers career.

The Steelers front office shares some blame in the Bell boycott after placing the tag on the All-Pro running back for a second consecutive season despite this outcome as a possibility. They could have addressed other positions of need with the $14.5 million earmarked for Bell, especially in the backfield.

Instead, the Steelers went for business as usual, and it backfired.

The only thing that can save the Steelers’ season is a Super Bowl, and their chances at winning one would have been better with Bell.

Bell will wear villain tag in Pittsburgh: Bell forever will be billed a villain in this town, in the same vein as Mike Merriweather after the All-Pro linebacker sat out the 1988 season and forced a trade to Minnesota. Where Chuck Noll ripped Merriweather — “He’s retired, as far as I’m concerned” — Mike Tomlin took emotions out of the equation with his “no reaction” comment.

“I understand that business is an element of the game of football,” Tomlin said. “There are elements of the game, relationships within the game, football-related relationships that we all hold near and dear and understand that football at this level, there’s also a business element. Even when we don’t understand it, we’re sensitive to it.”

Even after Steelers president Art Rooney II told Sirius XM Radio on Thursday he expected Bell to report, Tomlin maintained a defiant stance and never entertained questions about Bell. It didn’t benefit Tomlin or his team to participate in wishful thinking, especially once the season started without Bell on the 53-man roster.

“I’ve told you guys and I’ve told you guys consistently, a reaction comes from me if and when he walks in the door,” Tomlin said at his weekly news conference. “Until that happens, I’m business as usual, focused on those that are here and working — and appropriately so. That way I don’t waste my time or theirs.”

What if Bell never walks through the door?

“So be it.”

Hard-line stance: Bell said the same to his career with the Steelers, likely severing ties to the team by taking a hard-line stance on refusing to play on a second franchise tag. For those treating Twitter like a crystal ball, Bell had so many contradictory comments that he became impossible to read.

Perhaps he was sincere in planning to report by Week 1, only to change his mind after Todd Gurley signed a mega deal with the Los Angeles Rams. Maybe Bell’s decision was influenced by the season-ending injuries to Seahawks safety Earl Thomas and Saints receiver Dez Bryant. More likely, it’s tied to wanting a long-awaited free-agent payday.

Whatever Bell’s motivation to decline to play for the $14.54 million salary this season that would have matched his career salary earnings, the Steelers still have Super Bowl-or-bust aspirations.

That says nothing about the potential distraction Bell’s return could have caused in a locker room riding a five-game winning streak, given that Bell could have cut into the carries of James Conner after the second-year back was named AFC offensive player of the month for October.

Conner, however, is in the concussion protocol and the Steelers haven’t received much production from either backup, veteran Stevan Ridley or rookie Jaylen Samuels. Then again, the offense is averaging 31 points a game and the Steelers scored 52 points against Carolina on Thursday.

But the Steelers mocked James Harrison when he was released last December, only to see him sign with the Patriots and play in the Super Bowl. They don’t have to worry about that with Bell, as he can’t play this season, but the Steelers still have seven games remaining.

So, the Steelers and Bell wasted their time and ours.

Better with Bell: From strictly a football perspective, the Steelers would have been better by adding Bell. He is a dangerous dual threat as a rusher and receiver, not to mention a proven postseason performer who set playoff rushing records in 2016. Bell could have served as a complement to Conner or as an upgrade to their trio of No. 3 receivers.

Then again, the Steelers haven’t reached a Super Bowl with Bell, let alone won a seventh Lombardi Trophy.

Staring at the cover of the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers media guide, I noticed something simple but symbolic: a signature NFL football leaning against the back of a Steelers helmet with a clear face shield (similar to the one Bell wears) at an empty Heinz Field.

It should serve as a reminder of how we will remember Bell: as the player who turned his back on the town with the great football team. Now, the Steelers have to hope their Super Bowl-or-bust season doesn’t come up as empty as their franchise tag did.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

 

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