What Le’Veon Bell Should Have Done

Former Steelers linebacker James Harrison gave running back Le’Veon Bell some interesting advice regarding his holdout during a Fox Sports 1 television appearance last week. He suggested that his former teammate delay returning to the Steelers until to the latter of part of the season.

Here’s the punch line: Harrison suggest Bell practice normally and avoid playing in games by faking injuries to ensure being healthy for the start of free agency next March.

“I think the play for Le’Veon, if I’m Le’Veon, is I’m coming back November 13 and I’m gonna go in there, I’m gonna get my credit for the season I need to get, and I’m gonna do the best I can to get out of that season healthy,” said Harrison. “And, for me, I’d give you everything in practice, you would see—the cameras would see that I am fine, I am healthy. But come Saturday, something ain’t right, I can’t play on Sunday. Because if I go out here and I mess something up I’m losing a lot of money.”

Bell must sign a one-year deal, presumably for his $14.544 million franchise tender, at some point before 4 pm eastern time on November 13, which is the Tuesday after Week 10’s games, in order to play football this season. This is the signing deadline for players with a franchise tender, like Bell.

By Collective Bargaining Agreement rule, Bell is prohibited from signing long term until the end of the 2018 regular season on December 30 since he and the Steelers were unable to reach an agreement before the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year contracts. Returning before the deadline assures Bell of being an unrestricted free agent in 2019 since his third and final tag would be too cost prohibitive. Bell’s third tag will be the greater of 144 percent of his second franchise designation (his current tender) or the largest number at any position, which is almost always quarterback. The 2019 quarterback number is expected to be in the $25 million neighborhood.

Harrison’s solution is a bit extreme but the general concept isn’t that farfetched based on my experiences as an agent for the better part of two decades. One of the responsibilities for an agent is to advise clients on how to handle injuries. It isn’t out of the ordinary for players to make decisions regarding injuries that likely would have been different if the business ramifications weren’t given significant weight.

I know of situations where players have opted to cut short a contract year to have surgery in order to be as healthy as possible for free agency. Playing through an injury where the operation is delayed after the season would have occurred in most cases if there had been some level of contract security. This includes instances where the agent initiated contract extension discussions when an impending free agent client knew that offseason surgery was inevitable. Whether the player got a new deal was the deciding factor about finishing the season or cutting it short in order to get healthy as soon as possible before hitting the opening market.

Bell’s absence largely stems from his concern that a heavy usage season will impact his ability for a huge payday next offseason. He led the NFL with 321 rushing attempts and 406 touches (combined receptions and rushing attempts) in 2017. Bell was expected to have a similar or increased workload this season.

The concern is a valid but comes with an immediate financial cost. Bell is forfeiting 1/17th of his franchise tender, which is $855,529, with each week misses. The total will be just over $4.275 million after the upcoming slate of games. Bell has made a little more than $15.875 million from his NFL contracts. Receiving the full franchise tag would have nearly doubled his career earnings. The lost money from sitting out during the regular season becomes harder to make up with next year’s contract the longer Bell waits to return.

There are ways Bell could have mostly alleviated those concerns without costing himself money this season. My advice to Bell if representing him would have been to have the same timetable as last year when he signed his franchise tender around Labor Day. Prior to signing, I would have used the time between the July long term deal deadline and the September 2 roster cutdown to try to get Pittsburgh to agree to a one-year deal paying Bell more than his franchise tender. Since getting in excess of a franchise tender is unprecedented, the efforts probably wouldn’t have been successful.

I would have recommended Bell attempt to protect to himself by erring on the side of caution with any injury no matter how minor. For example, a soft tissue injury or ankle sprain would be given sufficient time to heal rather than rushing to return to action at the earliest possible instance. There’s a difference between being healthy and healthy enough to play. Bell would be encouraged to strive for the former.

Players are entitled to a second medical opinion from the doctor of their own choosing under the CBA. Agents usually develop a good rapport over time with a variety of doctors who can be used for these purposes. The second medical opinion doctors are typically more conservative in their diagnosis and recovery timetable than the team doctor. This prognosis would be prioritized over the team doctor’s with any injury. During the playoffs, injuries would be managed as they would under ordinary circumstances to decrease the chance of Bell’s durability being magnified.

Ideally, a player will have a career year when playing out his contract. That wouldn’t be a primary consideration for Bell because of the workload necessary for an 85 catch season with nearly 1,400 rushing yards. An efficient season would be the goal.

I had numerous conversations with clients while an agent about the dynamics of their respective teams during games. Some well-respected prominent players have pulled themselves out of games for a series or two for a variety of reasons while others had no interest being on the field during blowouts. Any time the outcome of a game was clearly decided, Bell wouldn’t be unnecessarily exposing himself to injury for statistical purposes.

Even if Bell adopted this approach, he’d still be at a risk for a serious injury although it would be minimized as much as reasonable possible. That’s what Seahawks’ safety Earl Thomas, who ended his holdout right before the start of the regular season, is trying to accomplish in a slightly different manner. He is willing to incur fines for missing practice while playing in games.

The general public isn’t happy when the business of football impacts their favorite team’s games. Fans usually take with management’s side in a contract dispute. Players making business decisions affecting a team where what’s best for the individual coming first isn’t anything. The scrutiny and attention paid to these decisions is.

Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott.

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