Power imbalance between NFL owners and players firmly in place

New Chiefs running back Le’Veon Bell, shown during his time with the Jets, has taken on the NFL in the past and now is on his third team in three years. 

Robert Deutsch / USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, when Le’Veon Bell was in the middle of an increasingly bitter holdout with the Pittsburgh Steelers, I wrote a column that gave him credit for practising the same sort of ruthlessness that teams use on their own rosters. The system fosters disloyalty, I argued, so good on him for doing just that.

Welcome, then, to a new column called Stinson Takes an L.

The point of that piece from 2018 remains true: Bell, in refusing to play for a second straight season on a one-year, franchise-tag deal, was only trying to maximize his one big payday and using whatever limited leverage he had against the Steelers.

But, it didn’t work. The Steelers didn’t budge and Bell ended up sitting out the whole of the 2018 season. He did eventually receive the big-money payday he sought, signing a front-loaded deal with the New York Jets before last season. As career moves go, this would have been like Robert Downey, Jr. quitting Iron Man to join the cast of the Transformers. Bell went from averaging 130 yards per game from scrimmage with the Steelers to about 80 yards per game with the Jets. He had four touchdowns in 17 games with New York.

Did the famously inept Jets just not know how to get the most out of him? Did they not have the talent around him to maximize his abilities? Was Bell not the same guy after missing a year’s worth of games and practices? Was he too comfortable after getting paid? Whatever the reasons, he went from a Hall of Fame track to a player who was released by a winless team because they couldn’t get anyone to trade for him. All in two years.

Bell tried to fight the system, but the NFL’s system can’t be fought. His release from the Jets came just days after Dak Prescott, quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, suffered a cover-your-eyes lower leg injury that ended his season. Prescott was in a similar situation with the Cowboys as Bell was with the Steelers, but rather than hold out and try to force Dallas into giving him a massive long-term deal, he took another one-year contract. It looked like a hell of a bet on himself, as Prescott was putting up ridiculous numbers with the Cowboys, right up until his ankle was pointed in the wrong direction. He’s expected to recover and will likely still merit some kind of big-dollar contract, but Prescott is unquestionably a devalued asset as a result of his decision to take another franchise-tag deal.

The Bell and Prescott cases underscore that the big NFL machine is one where the power imbalance still tilts heavily toward the league’s owners. The NBA is in the throes of the player-empowerment era, where stars can force trades to preferred destinations, or sign free-agent deals while conducting back-channel talks with other stars, all of which makes sense when the value of a single star to a basketball roster can make a huge difference to results. But in football the trend is moving the other way. Teams have realized that with the exception of high-end quarterbacks and perhaps a handful of elite stars at other positions, very few players will make an impact significantly different from that made by someone else who can be plugged into their spot. An offence or defence is a big, complex scheme with various package and parts, and with few exceptions a player is only as good as the teammates and coaches around him. See, for example, Le’Veon Bell, New York Jet.

But it’s not just him. One of the ironies of his denouement with the Steelers is that he wanted Todd Gurley money, something like the US$45-million guaranteed he was handed that same summer in a four-year deal with the Los Angeles Rams. Gurley played just two more seasons with the Rams and was cut last spring. His duties have been taken up by two younger backs and one veteran, more evidence that it is a thin line between All-Pro and fungible asset. Christian McCaffrey was thought to be the focal point of the Carolina offence, but when he was lost to injury that role fell to Mike Davis. He’s on his fourth team in six seasons, but has stepped in and done a fine McCaffery impression.

That players can be replaced in this manner should have been obvious years ago, when Bill Belichick was doing it season after season with everyone who was not named Tom Brady — and kept winning. But now much of the league is wise to this trick. Add in the fact that NFL careers are notoriously short due to the physical pounding that the sport requires, and the leverage in a contract stalemate swings even further toward management. Bell took it to its extreme when holding out with Pittsburgh, and he lost a year of his athletic and earning prime. He won’t get that back.

Bell wasn’t a free agent for long, agreeing on Friday to join the Kansas City Chiefs and their offensive wondershow. Perhaps he’ll be vindicated in the end, with a bunch of Jets money in the bank and a new starring role with the Chiefs.

I reserve the right to give the L back.

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