It has frankly been over three decades since the Pittsburgh Steelers have had such a dispute over value with one of their talents as the one they are in the midst of right now with running back Le’Veon Bell, who has already missed the team’s first two games and reportedly intends to miss two more before reporting.
Back in the mid-80s, the dispute was with Mike Merriweather, a star outside linebacker who owned the franchise’s single-season sack record until James Harrison broke it in 2008. He was ready to be paid after that, and he skipped an entire season. When he threatened to hold out another year, the Steelers finally relented and traded him.
The circumstances surrounding Bell are different, of course, but it has already been going on for two years, and according to ESPN, it could well extend into a third. The report indicates that the Steelers would use the transition tag on Bell in 2019, which would create some controversy.
The team could argue that the wording of the CBA indicates his transition tag value of 120 percent of his previous year’s salary would reflect what he actually earns after skipping six game checks. Bell and his agent would obviously argue that he would be entitled to 120 percent of his original franchise tag value, and the situation would have to be arbitrated, since it’s an unprecedented scenario with no black and white guidelines.
Whether or not the transition tag value goes off of the total value or a partial value, putting that tag on Bell would then enable him to negotiate with other teams. In doing so, he could set his value. He will inevitably receive several offers, and surely would sign one.
The Steelers would then be presented with a contract for Bell that they can either choose to match or move on from. And a team would really have to frontload the contract in order for it to be out of Pittsburgh’s reach, since they would have already had the tag value allocated to him.
One thing that I would add here is that the team has shown a bit of leniency here. While they like to do contracts in their own way, they were willing to accept the terms of Vance McDonald’s contract that he signed with the San Francisco 49ers when they trade for him, which was quite different from how they like to do business.
Perhaps if Bell goes out and gets the contract that he wants, and it’s shoved in the Steelers’ face that they either match this specific deal or lose him for good, they may decide to pull the trigger. Standing here right now in the beginning of October, that seems a bit far-fetched, but let’s see where we are in March.