Ready or not, here it comes:
- Franchise’s all-time sack leader? Check.
- Author of the most dynamic play in Super Bowl history? Check.
- Multiple times voted first-team All-Pro? Check.
- Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year? Check.
- Leader and mentor? Not so much.
The incredibly strange saga of James Harrison continues unabated, with this past Wednesday afternoon’s revelations, which came from the Steelers locker room during the open media session, being every bit as surprising as the news the previous Saturday that Harrison was being waived to open a roster spot for Marcus Gilbert to return from a four-game PED suspension.
I was in the media room on the second floor of the UPMC Rooney Spots Complex on that Sept. 6, 2014 day when James Harrison announced he was retiring as an NFL player. That in and of itself wasn’t so unusual, what with Harrison being 36 years old and coming off the least of his 11 NFL seasons, six of which he spent as a full-time starter.
During Harrison’s first four NFL seasons, he had been a reckless talent who literally struck fear into his first NFL position coach, and then he had spent the next six as a dynamic defensive player who annually ended up being one of the league’s premier edge rushers.
But after that 10th season, Harrison had been asked by the Steelers to take a pay cut, and when he refused to do so he was released and ultimately signed on with the Cincinnati Bengals. There, Harrison was a bit player on a division championship team that went one-and-done in the playoffs. It never reached the depths of Franco Harris in a Seattle Seahawks uniform or Joe Namath in a Los Angeles Rams uniform, but the optics still were bad. It seemed clear that Harrison had reached the end.
That’s why his decision to retire in September 2014 made sense, and it spoke to the level of appreciation the Steelers had for his contributions to their success that it was allowed to happen on their property. And then when it did happen, the turnout put an exclamation point on their appreciation.
Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Joey Porter, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, and John Norwig all sat in folding chairs in the audience as Harrison said his goodbyes. And if James Farrior and Casey Hampton still lived in the same time zone, they would’ve been there, too.
This mutual admiration society maybe peaked a few weeks later, when after an injury to Jarvis Jones, some of the ex-teammates in attendance at his retirement announcement got Harrison on the phone and pleaded with him to get off his couch and help them save the 2014 season. He did, and he did. His 5.5 sacks over a six-game stretch helped the transitioning Steelers win the AFC North and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Harrison was back, and he was needed, and he delivered, albeit in a lesser way statistically. When the Steelers patience with former No. 1 pick Jarvis Jones expired at the same time as one of Harrison’s contracts, they would do business one final time. Harrison signed a two-year contract on March 1, 2017 that was worth a reported $3.5 million, and he would receive $2.2 million of that in salary and bonuses over the first of those two years.
At the time, even with Harrison signed to a new contract, the Steelers were a team in need of a better outside pass rush, and with the NFL Draft still about eight weeks away their plan to add a talented edge rusher was more hope than reality. And even if they were lucky enough to be able to draft one, how quickly the rookie would be able to assimilate to the Steelers and the NFL and whether that rookie could stay healthy enough to be productive enough were mere guesses.
Even after getting lucky enough to pick T.J. Watt in the first round, the Steelers still were far from set at outside linebacker. Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo were unproven, and Arthur Moats was a versatile experienced veteran but not necessarily a player who should be a full-time starter on a team planning to contend for a championship.
And so the Steelers didn’t ask much of their 39-year-old outside linebacker during the offseason program or at training camp, to preserve him just in case. Watt, Dupree, and Chickillo got the bulk of the on-field work, and as the Steelers assessed what they had in these young outside linebackers the job description for the position within their scheme was evolving.
No longer were Steelers outside linebackers de facto pass-rushing defensive ends as was the case during the heyday of the Harrison/LaMarr Woodley tandem, or even going back farther in team history, to the heyday of the Jason Gildon/Joey Porter tandem. Instead, the job description had become what Watt’s stat line was in his first NFL regular season game: six tackles, two sacks, one interception, one pass defensed.
Clearly, at this stage of his life, Harrison’s body was ill-equipped to handle this new job description. For all of the social media posts chronicling his workouts, none of those vines showed him doing anything but lifting massive amounts of weight. Never any running, movement drills, change of direction, etc. Harrison’s game had become all about strength, where the Steelers had moved on to asking their outside linebackers to make plays in space.
Heading into the regular season finale, T.J. Watt was the only linebacker in the NFL to have at least: 40 Tackles (44), 5.0 Sacks (6.0), 5 Passes Defensed (7), and 1 Interception (1) in 2017. Watt also had: 10 quarterback hits, 8 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, and 1 field goal block. This was what the Steelers wanted from their outside linebackers, and James Harrison wasn’t physically capable anymore of delivering in all of those different categories.
Harrison has said he first approached the Steelers about releasing him early in the season, but according to the reported details of his contract, he already had been paid $1 million in signing and roster bonuses, and it would’ve made no sense to give a guy money up-front to be an insurance policy and then cut him less than one month into a four-month regular season.
Harrison apparently responded to not getting his way by acting out, and still the Steelers didn’t cut him until backed into a corner when the team needed to create a roster spot to activate starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert. Looking over the 53-man roster, the Steelers came to the conclusion that outside linebacker was the only spot with an extra player – being that there were five bodies there for two positions, which meant one more than necessary to fill out a two-deep depth chart – and that Harrison was fifth among five. And at 39 years old, he also was unlikely to get claimed off waivers.
There were six wide receivers on the depth chart, but with Antonio Brown injured and Darrius Heyward-Bey primarily a special teams guy that actually left them with four. Vince Williams was one of six defensive linemen – again, the idea at this stage of a season is to have two-deep at each position – and despite him being a healthy scratch in most games over the last two years, a 6-foot-7, 352-pound man is very likely to get claimed by another team. J.J. Wilcox has fallen out of favor recently after some foolish penalties on special teams, but as a 26-year-old safety with some ball skills, he’s another guy who wouldn’t last long on the waiver wire.
So, Harrison was the choice. He was told he could be brought back to the roster, and because there are provisions in the CBA where vested veterans can claim the rest of their salary for a particular year even if not on a roster for the whole season, he wouldn’t necessarily have been out any money as a result of the move.
But when granted the freedom he believed he was owed for his lack of playing time, Harrison chose the nuclear option: signing with the organization coached by the man he himself once claimed cheated the Steelers out of a Super Bowl. Completely within his right to do so, but his teammates were livid at what Harrison did and how he allowed a narrative to develop where the Steelers were being blamed for mistreating one of their great players, and so it came to be that Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Mitchell and Marcus Gilbert and Vince Williams and Bud Dupree, among some others, took it upon themselves to respond, albeit in different ways and to different degrees.
Some fans may choose to side with Harrison and discredit what those players said, but understand that Maurkice Pouncey is one of the most respected players in this locker room, as a matter of fact, in every locker room he has been a part of, and when he stood up and vowed, post-Chicago, that the Steelers would be on the sideline and stand for the national anthem going forward, and that anyone having a problem with that would answer to him, the Steelers have been on the sideline and have stood for the national anthem.
Why did management, including Mike Tomlin, put up with Harrison and what surely seems like insubordination? Hard to say, but there have been other instances where the team and its coach at the time tolerated things from certain special players at certain times. Ernie Holmes fired a rifle at a State Police helicopter and didn’t lose his starting job, and Mel Blount actually sued Chuck Noll during the fallout from the “criminal element” trial. Greg Lloyd openly and vocally defied Bill Cowher’s attempt to move him to inside linebacker, and Rod Woodson spent so much time standing next to Cowher instead of practicing during the 1996 season that some players began referring to him as “Coach Woodson.”
Clearly, the Steelers would have preferred to avoid what has become such an ugly breakup with their all-time sacks leader. But that’s not the way it turned out. “He erased himself,” Pouncey said Wednesday. “He erased his own legacy here.”
"That's something he wanted to do," Pouncey continued. "It's not like (management) got together and said, 'We want to cut James Harrison.' No, that's not what happened. He needs to come out and admit that … If you didn't want to be here, just come out and say it. Don't make it look like the team and the organization did that. You think the organization wanted to get rid of James Harrison? Let's be serious. C'mon now … If I wanted out, I wouldn't let the team take the blame for it. I’d tell you, 'I want to be out. I want to go somewhere else and play more. I want to start somewhere else.' That's me, as a man, that's what I would do … I'm glad the team is being respectful about it, but we're going to be speaking the truth."
Over time, Steelers fans will decide whether they will continue to remember James Harrison fondly. The guys in that locker room already have.