CLEVELAND -- To understand what got the Pittsburgh Steelers taking this Le'Veon Bell thing so hard, you need to go back about eight months. It was a frigid January day at the confluence of the Three Rivers, and the Steelers sat in their locker room in the wake of a 45-42 home playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, wondering how a season so packed with promise could possibly be over so soon.
"It brought us a different perspective," Steelers guard Ramon Foster told me a couple of days before the team's season-opening 21-21 tie in Cleveland. "Basically, if you're not all on the same page, you can lose to anybody, anywhere, at any time. We have a lot of talent, and at some point that talent's not all going to be together anymore, so you do feel that urgency."
The frustration in the Steelers' locker room when Bell didn't show up last week wasn't all about Bell's right to pursue a contract commensurate with his market value. It was just as much about that day in January, when the shell-shocked Steelers sat in their locker room and all said they'd be back this season to try it again. The expectation all summer, as Bell refused to sign his franchise tender and participate in the offseason program, was a repeat of 2017, when Bell showed up right after the final preseason game and played Week 1. When Wednesday rolled around and he wasn't there, his teammates felt as if he'd misled them.
"But when the agent is out there speaking for him," Foster said, "that tells you what it's about, right there."
So fine. The Steelers know where Bell stands, if not yet when he plans to come back. And their season is underway regardless, albeit with a blown 14-point lead and a soggy letdown of a tie against a division rival that went 0-16 last season. The questions now are: (1) What effect will this have on this Steelers' season, and (2) what effect will this have on Bell's long-term future with the franchise?
The first question got some answers Sunday in Cleveland. The Steelers said they were going to give backup James Conner a "Bell-type" workload and they did. Conner carried the ball 31 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns and caught five passes for 57 more yards. A brilliant day for the second-year back out of Pitt, and on the surface, a day that answers the question of what the Steelers' fallback plan is if Bell stays away a while and/or leaves as a free agent next March.
But a closer look shows that, in spite of the top-line numbers, the Steelers did miss Bell. Less afraid of Conner's game-breaking ability than they are of Bell's, the Browns' defensive coaches designed a plan to keep as many people in coverage as possible and limit the damage done by superstar wideout Antonio Brown. This was a huge reason for the three interceptions Ben Roethlisberger threw and, to a certain extent, the four sacks he took.
"Conner's a good back, and he can do a lot of things," Browns safety Jabrill Peppers said after the game. "But he doesn't offer everything Le'Veon offers as far as explosive ability."
The Steelers agree.
"Le'Veon is one of the best players in the world," Foster said. "Conner is a capable back. He's had those reps in practice. The difference is, Le'Veon is flawless at it. So it's not as if Conner can't do it, it's just that he hasn't had the experience and might not be as consistently smooth."
Conner is likely to get another crack at the job Sunday in the home opener against Kansas City -- unless Bell pulls a surprise and shows up Wednesday. But at this point, Bell seems willing to sit out a little while to help preserve his body and maximize his chances of making it to free agency healthy. The Steelers can't offer him a long-term deal again until after the season, according to the NFL's franchise-player rules, and the cost of franchising him a third year in a row would be a prohibitive $20.9 million.
The most likely outcome for Bell long term is that he shows up before Week 10 (after which he wouldn't be allowed to play), finishes out the season with Pittsburgh and then leaves as a free agent when the season is over. Which makes it all the more important to the win-now Steelers that they do, in fact, win now. The Steelers got a look Sunday at what life after Bell will look like. But even if they're OK with what they saw, they're not in a hurry for that life to start anytime soon.
A handful of other things we learned in Week 1:
Denzel Ward at No. 4 might not have been a crazy pick
Remember the grief the Browns took for passing on Bradley Chubb and picking cornerback Ward at No. 4 overall in the draft? Well, Ward had two interceptions of Roethlisberger in his debut game and played well in coverage throughout. (Nothing more he could do on Brown's magic-trick touchdown than what he did.)
I spoke with Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams before the game, and he was trying to soft-pedal Ward a bit, saying he's got work to do to get up to speed after missing a bunch of offseason practice time with some injury issues. But he believes Ward is the real deal, and he loves his ability to play press coverage, move around the defensive formation and react to what he sees.
"He's the kind of guy we need to really start taking this thing to the next level," Williams said. Early returns positive there.
Any rule that protects the quarterbacks is a worthwhile rule
People are up in arms about this "landing with your body weight on the quarterback" thing, which isn't even a new rule, by the way, but rather a point of emphasis the league is making by request of its coaches and players.
But watching Aaron Rodgers get carted off the field Sunday night reminded everyone of how important it is for these guys to stay out there. Bears fans might not want to hear it, but Rodgers' Willis Reed-style second-half comeback showed that the league is a better and more exciting place with him in it. We don't yet know what effect Rodgers' knee injury will have on the rest of his season, but the hope is that those weren't his final dazzling heroics of 2018.
To be clear: I'm NOT saying any kind of rule would/could have prevented what happened to Rodgers on Sunday. Just that, when a superstar gets knocked out like that, it's a reminder of why there are rules in place to protect them. If the league is concerned about growing/maintaining its popularity (and it is), it will do everything it can to showcase and, yes, protect its biggest stars.
The Cowboys might have to tweak their formula
They're stubborn out there, so I wouldn't necessarily expect this to happen. But this is a team built around the idea of a monster offensive line and running game as the heart of its offense. Problem is, right now, with Travis Frederick out, a rookie playing left guard and mainstays Zack Martin and Tyron Smith dealing with off-and-on ailments, that line isn't so monsterish.
The Cowboys might not have trustworthy passing game targets yet, but they'll need to take a chance or two at some point to loosen things up for Ezekiel Elliott and that running game. Carolina's front is nasty, but it's not the last nasty one Dallas will see this season. Big early NFC East showdown coming Sunday night against the also 0-1 Giants.
Sam Darnold passed a big early test
Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Jets' defense and special teams and the Lions' general ineptitude had plenty to do with the Jets' huge victory in Monday night's early game.
But think about what this was for Darnold, the youngest player ever to start a season opener at quarterback. His first-ever NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. When you use the No. 3 overall pick on a quarterback, you want it to be a guy who doesn't let a thing like that shake him up. Darnold's performance from that point forward offered ample evidence that he is such a player. And if he is, he's well-suited to perform his high-pressure job in his high-pressure market.
It's way too early to make a comparison to anyone like this, but part of the reason Eli Manning has succeeded for so long in New York is his short memory. If that's a quality Darnold possesses, it will suit him well.