Le'Veon Bell already seems like an ex-Steeler in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — The remains of Le’Veon Bell’s heyday in Pittsburgh were scattered throughout the crowd of 62,881 who filled Heinz Field’s plastic yellow seats Thursday. A handful of No. 26 jerseys, likely purchased well before the running back chose to stay away from the Steelers this season, could be seen in the crowd.

That’s the extent of Bell representation at the stadium in which he played his professional home games from his rookie year, 2013, through the Steelers’ divisional playoff loss to the Jaguars last season. The photography that gives the walls inside Heinz Field their decor included no images of Bell juking and running by defenders.

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Bell technically is not a member of the team as long as his franchise tender remains unsigned. Still, the relative absence of Bell representation in Pittsburgh is jarring. It’s as if the team’s fourth all-time leading rusher never even played here.

Some have speculated whether the Steelers are proving a point by giving James Conner, Bell’s replacement, 18.9 carries per game and watching him produce at a Pro Bowl level, but accusations of such pettiness on the part of the coaching staff can be rebutted with Conner’s production and Pittsburgh’s status as the AFC North leader.

Fans, however, are perfectly capable of that pettiness. As great as Conner has played this season, it’s fair to wonder why the cheers as the second-year back trotted onto the field for pregame warmups Thursday were louder than the roar four-time All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown heard a couple minutes prior.

Conner, a Pennsylvania native who played his college ball at Pitt before the Steelers drafted him in 2017 (and a cancer survivor), was a natural fan favorite before he took over the starting running back role this season. Throw in the emotions of a proud fan base that feels it has been spurned by Bell, and Conner suddenly feels like a Yinzer legend.

Bell’s unlikely return to the Steelers and signing of his franchise tender sometime in the next few days would change things, of course. The stadium-concourse merchandise booths might again include white or black No. 26 jerseys; as of Thursday, none were available for purchase.

Those fans who already own Bell jerseys might again feel comfortable sporting them in the crowd; on Thursday, one was more likely to spot a No. 52 jersey of the late Mike Webster, who retired almost 30 years ago.

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If Bell does not report to the Steelers and sign his franchise tender by 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, he will not be able to play this season. If that happens, it will be a virtual guarantee that he will never play for the Steelers again.

That would mean little to a franchise and fan base that evidently has already moved on. As far as they’re concerned, Bell is already an ex-Steeler.

And given the way things appear to be ending, it’s fair to wonder whether they’ll care to recognize Bell as a Steeler in this stadium ever again.