PITTSBURGH -- Le'Veon Bell is not in the building.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have one practice left before breaking for the bye. Bell can show up at any time, but ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the team doesn't expect that to be this week.
Now is a good time to dissect what's next for Bell and the Steelers in this weekly saga.
Where does this story go next?
Bell's plan was to utilize the two-week period between the bye and the Browns game in Week 8 to get back into the football swing with extra practice time. The Steelers open Week 8 with what they call a "bonus Monday" practice, which Bell can utilize. If Bell doesn't show by next week, it's possible his plans have changed.
This is a fluid situation featuring a team actively trying to trade an unsigned player who hasn't kept in contact with it. More fireworks are expected.
How do the Steelers' expectations for Bell's reporting correlate with Bell's plans privately?
That's a key factor here. Bell hasn't talked to the team in months, and that's strategic. Not informing the club of when he'll show is exercising his leverage as an unsigned player. And unless there's a franchise-tag stipulation that Bell must notify the team in writing of his return, Bell can simply show up when he wants.
How might this play out?
Last season, Bell showed up on a Friday to take his physical and signed his tender the following Monday. Following the same plan for this week and next is not out of the question but would be a bit clunky. The building will be empty save a few trainers or staff members.
Bell is from Columbus, Ohio, so when he leaves Miami, where he's been training, he'll likely return home for a day or two, then transition to Pittsburgh for the fall and winter months.
How did the bye-week dynamic play into this?
Over the weekend, the NFL Network reported the Steelers aren't obligated to pay Bell his $855,000 salary for the bye week because there's no game to be played. I checked on this and can confirm it. I don't know if Bell stayed away because of that, but it could be a factor.
A few weeks ago, Bell used his official Instagram account to "like" a SportsCenter post about a timeline for Bell's return.
So how does the immediate payout work upon his return?
Well, the two-week roster exemption looms large here. The Steelers can withhold pay for those two weeks if they see fit -- or see unfit, if Bell is not in game shape. The best guess here is Bell will report game-ready. Otherwise, why show up at all? Once Bell is in the building, the Steelers can make that call.
What about trade scenarios?
Things could heat up around the Oct. 30 deadline, but there has been minimal buzz leaguewide in recent weeks. There is no work-around on Bell's franchise tag. Given running back volatility and Bell's status as a one-year rental, even Bell isn't expecting a trade.
How are teammates taking all this?
The Steelers have answered questions about Bell nearly every week since the season started. They've been professional but have grown tired of the storyline. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert said Monday that he'll be excited to see Bell but doesn't want to discuss players who aren't here.
Mostly, players understand both sides -- they'll welcome Bell back but had to move on without him.
Fowler visualizes Bell-Conner backfield
Jeremy Fowler describes the "one-two punch" of a James Conner-Le'Veon Bell backfield when Bell decides to return to the Steelers.
"I think it was just all kind of shocking that he wasn’t here, a little confused [at first]," said guard David DeCastro about Week 1. "Now it’s kind of like, 'OK, we’re in the season, we’re going, just don’t worry about extra stuff.'"
The Steelers like the idea of a 1-2 tailback combo with Bell and James Conner, who's fifth in rushing (453 yards) and second in rushing touchdowns (seven). DeCastro mentioned replicating the New Orleans Saints' flexibility with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram as intriguing. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster cited a potential "1-2 super-punch" up the middle.
"Conner's played great," tight end Jesse James said. "Obviously, with Le'Veon, I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what kind of shape he's going to be in. ... But there's nothing wrong with having two great backs for us. It's only going to help us."
Do players see the levity in all this?
Hey, that's a great question. And yes, they do. On Tuesday, players had strategically placed Bell's No. 26 helmet and a pair of black-and-gold Jordan brand cleats on the chair by his locker. On Monday, they even displayed a sandwich box and other items to throw off the media.
Never a dull moment in Pittsburgh.