As anticipated, Bell did not sign his Steelers franchise tender by Tuesday's deadline as stipulated under the collective bargaining agreement, meaning the prolific running back is no longer eligible to play this season. With Bell foregoing the $14.45 million he was slated to make under the tag, it's unlikely the running back will ever play a down again with the Steelers.
"I want to confirm that Le'Veon Bell did not sign his franchise tender today and, as a result, he will not be eligible to play football during the 2018 season."
While Steelers owner Art Rooney II expressed hope that Bell would sign his franchise tender before the deadline and join them for their late-season push, it became clear over the past week that the former second-round pick had no strong long-term incentive to sign the tender since it wouldn't have an overly adverse effect on his free agency prospects.
"I understand that business is an element of the game of football," Mike Tomlin said Tuesday ahead of the 4 p.m. ET deadline. "And the elements of the game, relationships within the game, football-related relationships that we all hold near and dear and understand. And then, football at this level, there's also a business element. Even when we don't understand it, we're sensitive to it. So we're not shocked when things happen from a business standpoint."
As NFL Network's Tom Pelissero and Aditi Kinkhabwala reported last week, with the NFL management council and the NFL Players Association agreeing the Steelers couldn't utilize the franchise tag's second-year terms for Bell in 2019, it's almost certain the Steelers will not tag him a third straight year. That's because the third-year franchise tag would pay out the quarterback salary number, and it's highly unlikely the Steelers will pay Bell more than $20 million for one year.
"Man, I hadn't thought about that one iota," Tomlin said when asked if he's considered that Bell has played his final downs for Pittsburgh. "Again, like I said repeatedly and I mean, I'm focused on the guys that are here, man. We got enough challenges that are significant in terms of meeting the things that we need to meet this week in terms of getting the win."
The Steelers have two other options -- let Bell walk into free agency when the new league year begins in March or place him under the transition tag. The transition tag is a one-year tender that would allow Bell to negotiate contract offers from other teams. The Steelers would have the right to match any offer sheet Bell signs from another team under the transition tag but would receive no compensation if they don't. There is a potential dispute looming with the NFLPA over what the transition tag number should be for Bell, Pelissero reported.
While Bell's self-imposed exile looked to be setting up the Steelers for failure, especially after the team's worrisome start, James Conner's emergence as a potent dual-threat back has helped cover up Bell's absence. Conner has rushed for 771 yards and 10 touchdowns in addition to tallying 387 receiving yards and a TD for a Steelers team that has won five straight.
As for Bell, he'll be limited to cheering on his teammates from afar as he waits for the next important date in his quest to find contractual bliss. The Steelers can place him on the transition tag starting Feb. 19.