New Castle News Opinion

In the age of free agency, loyalty — either on the part of a franchise or a player — has become a thing of the past.

Now, it’s all about business.

Athletes generally jump at the first opportunity to leave the team that gave them their chance in favor of one that can pay more money. And teams, especially those in smaller markets, are just as happy to field younger players who come more cheaply, hoping to get a few competitive seasons out of them at bargain basement prices before they, too, become too expensive to keep.

It’s simply a fact of life — and yet, it can still be painful to teammates and fans, who may feel that putting money ahead of team success is unacceptable on the part of either ownership or players.

Undoubtedly, some feel that way about Le’Veon Bell’s decision to sit out the Pittsburgh Steelers’ entire 2018 season because the team did not offer him a deal for the future that would have improved on the $14.5 million he was in line to make this year. And that’s why Bell did the team the biggest favor he could last week — he decided not to report before the deadline that prevents him from playing at all this year.

The Steelers are 6-2-1 and have won five in a row after a dismal September. A large part of their success has come in the form of James Conner, a third-round draft pick who has been putting up Bell-like numbers. Conner is the feel-good story of the year, but it’s not just his success that has won the heart of Steelers fans. He’s a hometown guy, having played his college ball at Pitt; he’s humble and always credits his success to his offensive line; and he’s a cancer survivor whose story becomes more inspiring with each NFL carry.

Inserting Bell back onto the roster at this point of the season certainly would have had its upside for Pittsburgh.

On paper, having a running back of Bell’s caliber with fresh legs heading down the stretch would create a major problem for defenses and give Conner a chance to get a bit of rest prior to the post season.

Steelers players, for the most part, have refrained from criticizing Bell for abandoning them, saying they are focused on winning with the teammates they have. Still, the possibility of Bell playing only half a season and eventually reaping the same rewards as those who have been around since the start of training camp couldn’t help but be an irritant. And even if it were not, the team has built a chemistry and a momentum that simply would not be wise to tinker with.

Bell has cheered his former teammates, especially Conner, on throughout the season. But for him to helicopter in now and proclaim himself one of them would have as much potential for distraction and discord as it would for depth.

We certainly wish Bell and the Steelers could have come to terms on a deal that might have kept him in Pittsburgh for the remainder of his career. But with things having progressed as far as they have, Bell’s decision not to return was likely the best one for the Steelers and himself.

It enables the team to continue on the track that has it looking once again like a Super Bowl contender, and should free up some salary cap money to shore up a defense that still ranks only 16th in the league against the pass.

As for Bell, he’s guaranteed to be 100 percent when free agency comes calling in the spring. We thank him for his contributions to the Steelers, and wish him only the best down the road.

And we’d sure like to see him land in the AFC East, where he’d become Bill Belichick’s problem at least twice a year.

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