Mark Madden: For their own good, Steelers must keep Le’Veon Bell away

November 20, 2018

James Conner is much better now than Le’Veon Bell was last year.

The latter sample size is small, the former even smaller.

But Conner is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and 10.4 yards per catch. He has nine touchdowns in seven games.

Last season, Bell averaged 4.0 yards per carry and 7.7 yards per catch. He had 11 TDs on the season.

Conner has had seven runs of 20 or more yards this season. Bell had three such carries all of last season.

Conner has had three straight games of 100 or more yards rushing and two touchdowns. That hadn’t been done in the NFL since 2009.

Sure, Bell’s performance last year was stunted because he missed training camp. He missed it again this year, don’t forget.

Even if Bell does report this season, it will take him weeks to catch up to Conner.

More likely, Bell won’t reach Conner’s level -- or even Bell’s level from last year, which was mediocre -- until next season when he’s with another team.

The Steelers must stick with Conner and keep Bell away.

The price is right: Bell would make $855,000 per game. Conner will make $578,000 this season.

The Steelers can’t rescind Bell’s franchise tag. They would lose the compensatory third-round pick and Bell might go someplace where he could hurt them, like New England.

But the Steelers shouldn’t want Bell’s toxicity and selfishness dropped into the middle of a locker room that has rallied to win three straight, doing so largely because of Conner’s performance.

If Bell shows, coach Mike Tomlin will start him sooner than he should, probably after a couple of weeks. Conner wouldn’t play much.

Tomlin doesn’t split the carries. When Bell was available, Tomlin gave quality backups like LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams an absolute minimum of touches.

Those who think both could play in the same backfield are nuts. That would require the offense to make gigantic midseason adjustments. Conner and Bell have different styles, so the blocking changes. If you put Bell in the slot, he’s Eli Rogers. Anyway, Bell wouldn’t want to do that.

Bell has moved on emotionally. The Steelers must do so literally.

The Steelers need to maintain a hard line on not paying Bell one penny while he is on the exempt list for two weeks, which would happen if/when he reports. That is reportedly what’s keeping Bell away right now.

That’s perfect. Make Bell keep himself in limbo.

Bell couldn’t come in and be better than Conner this year, or even effective. Not after missing two straight training camps.

Bell wouldn’t help. He would disrupt.

The Steelers need to keep Bell away. Rather, make Bell keep himself away. Bell watches the games. How could he possibly conclude the Steelers need or want him right now?

Lots of local microphone jockeys and ink-stained wretches bleat on about Bell’s talent, which is considerable. But it’s been too often dormant since the completion of the 2016 season.

If Bell shows up, it will not turn out well for the Steelers.

Bell will play too much, too soon and stink. Or Conner will keep the starting job, and Bell will be unhappy. It’s one thing to sit in Florida and watch somebody else do your job on TV. It’s quite another to sit on the sidelines where TV viewers can watch you watch somebody else do your job.

Bell wouldn’t be good. He was far below his usual standard last year after missing training camp. Why would he be better after missing another training camp?

Tomlin is the wild card. When Tomlin told Cleveland reporters he was “marginally pleased” with Conner’s progress, he was either dangling a carrot in front of his first-year starter or passively-aggressively telling Bell the job would still be his.

But if Bell never shows, Tomlin has no choice but to stick with Conner. Steelers ownership and management would be wise to facilitate that.

Unless Conner gets hurt, that is. Then it’s time to welcome back the prodigal son.

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