PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell insists it was just business. All of it.
The eight-month sabbatical from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Instagram posts highlighting his workouts while he was away.
His refusal to sign his franchise tag until less than a week before the 2017 season opener.
Nothing personal. Bell just didn’t see the point in showing up for training camp and risking an injury that could jeopardize both his team’s championship aspirations and his own long-term fiscal future. So the Pro Bowl running back waited until Monday to put pen to paper.
“I didn’t want to get hurt in camp,” Bell said shortly after completing his first practice with his teammates since January. “My rookie year I remember getting hurt in camp, so I didn’t even want to deal with it. I wanted to get here, get ready for Game 1, get ready for games that count.”
A couple of squiggles and Bell officially became the highest-paid running back in the NFL, though the one-year, $12.1-million contract he signed wasn’t the more lucrative long-term one he was seeking. Bell declined to get into specifics why he and the Steelers were unable to reach an agreement, and isn’t sure where a report that indicated he nixed a new contract came from.
“It was in a private room, I just want to leave it at that,” Bell said. “I don’t want to talk contract situation. I just want to keep it moving.”
So do the rest of the Steelers. Bell kept in contact with Pittsburgh’s offensive linemen during his “stay out” and center Maurkice Pouncey couldn’t contain his glee at seeing Bell’s familiar No. 26 in the huddle.
“Happy as hell,” Pouncey said. “He looked like he was in shape. He looked like he didn’t miss a beat at all.”
That was kind of the point for Bell, who tried his best to mimic the conditioning program he uses during a typical training camp. While allowing it may take a practice or two to get truly into football shape, Bell figures he took his normal allotment of snaps with the starters. He’s hoping to play when Pittsburgh travels to Cleveland on Sunday. The only real question will be the workload.
Asked if he expected Bell to be limited against the Browns, Pouncey laughed and said, “I hope not.”
Neither does Bell. While his protracted absence proved problematic — he drew the ire of some fans on social media during his time away — he also understands what’s at stake. He’s only played a full 16-game schedule once in his four seasons, with the other three shortened by injury, suspension or both.
When he’s on the field, Bell is one of the most unique talents in the NFL. He averaged a league-leading 157 yards of total offense in 2016, with the Steelers relying heavily on him during a nine-game winning streak that took them from 4-5 to the AFC championship game. A groin injury rendered him a spectator for most of a lopsided loss at New England, leading to offseason surgery to fix the problem.
“I’ve got to go out there, stay on the field, prove that I’m healthy, and the rest will take care of itself,” Bell said.
Though the 25-year-old downplayed the idea he’s trying to reset the market for running backs, he laughed when asked about a freestyle rap he posted on social media last week that seemed to hint he wanted $17 million a season because “26 is savage.”
“That was me freestyling off my head, first number (I thought of),” Bell said. “I felt like it rhymed better, so I kept going.”
Pouncey declared at the start of camp he would sacrifice a year off his own $44-million deal to make sure Bell is taken care of for the long haul, an offer Pouncey only half-jokingly said still stands.
“We’re cool with him,” Pouncey said. “We understand the other side of this too now. The media and the fans want him here, but at the end of the day, it’s a business. We know both sides of the game.”
Bell plans on spending this week catching up on the new wrinkles offensive coordinator Todd Haley installed during the offseason. No more focusing on money or respect or the future. He’s not sure what will happen when negotiations with the Steelers reopen after the Super Bowl. Maybe they reach an agreement, maybe Pittsburgh franchises him again. Either way, for now it’s back to football.
“Right now I’m playing under the one-year tag,” Bell said. “I’ll worry about (the future) when the time comes.”
Notes: The Steelers made quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive end Cam Heyward captains for the 2017 season. ... Pittsburgh placed rookie CB Cameron Sutton on injured reserve/designated for return list with a hamstring issue. The Steelers cut S Jordan Dangerfield and signed LB Steve Johnson, who was cut on Saturday.