Keidel: Le'Veon Bell learning that grass not always greener - sometimes, it's dead


So Le'Veon Bell is the nth cautionary tale about the green grass on the other side of that white picket fence. He finally learned his lesson, three years too late, when he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bell may not have a real fence, picket or otherwise. But when he played in Pittsburgh, for the Steelers - as stable as any franchise in American team sport - he had the immaculate house, in the home of the Immaculate Reception. Once the Steelers drafted him, he knew no other life than the inherent stability and esprit de corps of a family-owned business, even if that business is the NFL.

Two years ago, Bell turned down a franchise tender from the Steelers, which would have paid him handsomely - about $14 million - for one season. Instead of accepting a raise from the $12.2 million he made the year before, Bell benched himself, lost all that quid, and never got it back.

He then left the gorgeous home and lawn and freshly-painted fence and stormed through the weed-choked gates of the Jets, taking less yearly pay per annum than the $14.4 million the Steelers offered when he signed a four-year, $52 million deal with Gang Green. And the relationship turned gangrenous the moment the running back arrived, eventually playing for a coach who didn't want him and a GM who didn't sign him.

But that's just the zero-sum calculus of the business, the cash number we can quantify. What we can't measure with a ruler or calculator, but still know very well, is that he left the team that loved him, drafted him, nurtured him, and turned him into a superstar. He split the quiet, happy family for the Kardashians.

Bell was trying to make more than a point, but rather a tectonic statement, and change the market. He did none of that. And he just got cut by the worst team in the league. The fact that he just signed with the Super Bowl champs, the Chiefs, speaks to the lesson he learned, though it's about three years too late.

But if we, as the media or masses, have learned anything about pro football, it's that no one player can stiff-arm the NFL. And while Jerry Krause was silly for saying that organizations, not players, win championships - particularly when one player is Michael Jordan - there's some truth to his hubris.

We see it in all sports, from the Spurs to the Yankees. But since football is so inherently violent, the need for the calm tone or touch from a head coach or GM or even an owner can work wonders.  When the franchise is stable, they make better draft picks, develop their own, and don't dive into free agency for another team's leftovers or livid stars in order to build their core.

Just a cursory look at the Steelers and Jets tells you the story. In the symbolic tale of the tape, the Steelers are heavyweights while the Jets are welterweights. The Jets have had 19 head coaches since the merger. The Steelers have had three (the Jets, by contrast, have had three in the last six years, and likely a fourth soon). The Steelers have had one true quarterback since 2004; the Jets have had 18 different quarterbacks start a game. The Steelers have been in the NFL playoffs ten times since '04; the Jets have been just four times. The Steelers have played in eight Super Bowls, winning six; the Jets haven't been to the Super Bowl since Woodstock.

There's a reason John Elway refused the Colts. There's a reason Eli Manning scrambled his way out of San Diego. While the situations are not identical, each iconic QB came from a stable home, relied on dad's wisdom, and picked the more stable home in which to live and prosper – and left the NFL with two Super Bowl rings on their hands. Elway is probably on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks, and was a no-brainer Hall of Famer. Manning could (should?) migrate to Canton in a few years.

Money matters, of course. But is there an amount that buys more than financial security? Is there a contract that justifies leaving a bedrock franchise for one planted in the San Andreas Fault Line?

Bell's equally famous and talented teammate Antonio Brown pulled a similar move; he got himself jettisoned from Pittsburgh, got his money in Oakland, and then fell apart. Despite his talent, and his sacred spot on the cover of Madden '19, Brown isn't even in the league anymore. Brown and Bell, along with Big Ben, were part of the most potent trio in pro football, with their mail forwarded to the NFL playoffs, and are now afterthoughts.

The Steelers are fine without either, by the way. They are 4-0 for the first time since 1979, and are one win over the Browns from starting 5-0 for the first time since 1978.  The Jets are 0-5, with holes littered across the roster, and a head coach who may not even finish the season. Meanwhile, Mike Tomlin is as likely to be fired as a Russian Czar.

The bulb over Bell's head finally flashed on. He's leaving the losing and fishbowl scrutiny of the Jets for a football utopia in Kansas City, a steady franchise with a great coach (Andy Reid) who designs offenses contoured for Bell's skill set. And, like he had in Pittsburgh, he has a franchise QB (Patrick Mahomes) to hand and throw him the ball. Like the Steelers, the Chiefs have been owned and run by one family since they were founded as an AFL franchise in 1960.

Bell may have another good year or two left in his formerly unmatched legs. But he sacrificed greatness for money, and got all-consuming mediocrity. Sadly, Le'Veon Bell wasn't the first, and won't be the last to learn that organizations don't win championships, but the best ones, which always are the stable ones, always build them.

Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel

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