Bell's 500-plus days under the constraints of the franchise tag were never about sentiment. One of the most complicated negotiations in recent Steelers history is approaching the finish line without palpable buzz because of Bell's leverage under the tag, a sagging running back market and Bell’s conviction to be paid as one of the game’s best playmakers.
Ahead of Monday's 4 p.m. ET deadline to execute a long-term deal, the sides have reopened talks, hoping to spark a dormant stretch in which not much optimism existed because of the price gap. Deadlines can change the dynamic, but each side knows where the other stands. One side must look at the clock and decide whether it's worth meeting the other's demands, which is possible but hardly a guarantee.
It has been more than 16 months since the Steelers first tagged Bell at $12.12 million on Feb. 27, 2017. Since then, Bell has turned down two sizable contract offers -- one last summer and one this winter, beginning at about $13.3 million per year on average and working up slightly.
Bell wants at least $14.5 million annually on a long-term deal to match his franchise number. The Steelers haven't wanted to go that high, and that might not change Monday. They aren't eager to overinflate a running back market that hasn't seen a long-term deal worth more than $10 million per year since Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson in 2011.
With that in mind, Bell always knew he could play out two franchise tags worth a combined $26.62 million and have a chance at true free agency as a 27-year-old in 2019, setting the stage for peers Todd Gurley II and Ezekiel Elliott in future years.
Turning down the Steelers' terms for a second straight year could prove difficult. But Kirk Cousins and Trumaine Johnson have shown the tag can be a friend. They earned nearly $75 million combined on consecutive tags, then followed up with more than $150 million on long-term deals. Running backs won't get that now, but the blueprint probably sounds more attractive to Bell than dealing with the suppressed market led by Devonta Freeman's $8.25 million per year.
"Players are tired of taking deals with the last three years not guaranteed," said one prominent agent with experience with the franchise tag. "Eventually, they say, 'Why are they doing this?'"
So they are taking the tag. Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and others likely will do the same on Monday.
In the Steelers' case, the hope still lies in the Steelers traditionally valuing hard work and greatness, which never has been an issue with Bell. Tomlin is known as a huge Bell advocate behind the scenes because of how Bell prepares for football throughout the year. Teammates don't ever worry about him not showing up in shape. And even though the Steelers don't guarantee contracts beyond the first year, the franchise is known for letting core members play out their pricey extensions.
"Obviously, we want to get a deal done, he wants to get a deal done, everybody has said that," Tomlin told WAVY.com's Bruce Rader over the weekend at the coach's annual Hampton Roads Youth Foundation appearance in the Virginia Beach, Virginia, area. "Now, it’s just about the negotiators getting into a room and doing what it is they need to do. I’m excited and hopeful. Hopefully, we’ll have some exciting news before Monday."
But Bell has been dealing with hard numbers -- mainly, his 7,992 total yards through 62 regular-season games, the most since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger during a player's first five seasons.
He has softened on his retirement stance from January, but these words to ESPN then still apply to his mindset.
"I'm not going to settle for anything," Bell said. "I know what I do and what I bring to the table. I'm not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I'm not getting what I feel I'm valued at."
Those words will be tested now.