PITTSBURGH -- No one wanted it to come to this.
Not Le'Veon Bell, who, money aside, wanted to retire a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Not the Steelers, who offered Bell a $70 million extension this offseason, though without the guarantees to Bell's liking.
And certainly not Pittsburgh fans, who cheered on Bell for his prolific play for five seasons.
But Bell's lost season -- finalized Tuesday when he didn't show by the 4 p.m. deadline to sign his franchise tag -- was a byproduct of two stubborn sides that weren't meant to negotiate.
Bell was willing to forfeit $14.5 million to become a standard-bearer for undervalued top players everywhere, banking on a lucrative deal as an unrestricted free agent in March.
The Steelers won't budge from their traditional -- maybe archaic -- contract structures that in most cases don’t offer full guarantees beyond a signing bonus.
If Bell was with another franchise, he might not be in this situation.
But both sides can still get what they want, and be better off for it.
How Bell wins: By securing $40 million in guarantees from a team with a creative offense and a winning culture.
Bell told ESPN in October he was seeking at least $40 million in guarantees in negotiations with the Steelers last offseason. That range would have secured Bell's future in Pittsburgh. The Steelers offered $17 million, Bell says.
Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson recently signed a three-year, $39 million deal with $31.82 million in guarantees. Bell will be looking for a substantial increase on that, and with the salary cap likely to balloon another 7 to 8 percent, Bell might just get there.
A long-term deal worth up to $60 million with most of it guaranteed would be considered a win for Bell. Remember, he's only 26, and despite running backs sharply declining with age and usage, Bell might be best served cutting a three-year deal and signing another, albeit smaller contract at age 29 or 30.
The highest bidder will most likely be a bad team, but Bell's skill set would allow him to thrive with the Philadelphia Eagles or San Francisco 49ers. Those teams could have some fun with Bell, and they aren't afraid to spend.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers project to have ample cap space in March if they move on from Jameis Winston in favor of a cheap rookie or release Jason Pierre-Paul. Teams without major money tied to a quarterback can afford a top-tier playmaker such as Bell.
How the Steelers win: By improving the defense, supporting James Conner and walking away from Bell.
The Steelers have the option to tag Bell a third time, but at this point a clean divorce might be necessary. Letting Bell walk while getting a midround compensatory pick when he signs a lucrative contract elsewhere seems like the logical play.
Absent a tag, the Steelers will have an additional $14 or so million in cap space that they reserved for Bell all offseason.
They didn't get to spend that on the defense last spring, but they can this time. The Steelers can carry over almost $20 million of cap space into 2019, and although a Ben Roethlisberger extension will absorb much of that, they should have flexibility to improve areas of the defense, maybe find a coverage linebacker to pair with Vince Williams & Co.
The Steelers closely evaluated several running backs in the top three rounds of the 2018 draft. Though the Steelers are 2-for-2 on Day 2 running backs Bell and Conner (who's now the team's future at the position), securing another can lighten Conner's usage and complement the passing game.