I’ve been wanting to comment on this for awhile and also wanted to go on record with it before tonight’s game against Cincy. God knows ESPN will do what it does best and shove this story down our throats ad nauseum tonight. JAMES HARRISON HAS AN AX TO GRIND AND IF I WAS BEN ROETHLISBERGER, I’D HAVE MY HEAD ON A SWIVEL! Anyway, before the hype machine cranks up, here’s some level-headed thinking on the matter and some points to consider.
For those unfamiliar, here’s the Cliff Notes: Harrison was due $6.57m in 2013 and the cap-strapped Steelers ask him to restructure his deal and offered $4.5m plus incentives that would have enabled him to potentially earn the $6.57m he was originally slated to make. Harrison, always with a chip on his shoulder, declines the offer and enters the free agent market which is already teeming with outside linebacker / defensive end types. He gets virtually no interest on the open market, then comes back to the Steelers, tail between his legs (“Umm……about that $4.5m plus incentives you offered me….”) and is rebuffed by the team. He then signs a $2-year / $4.45m deal with Cincy – far less than he was originally offered from Pittsburgh. A classic lose-lose scenario.
While the scales of blame tilt more towards Harrison and his agent Bill Parise, the Steelers probably could have re-signed him for even less than the original restructured offer of $4.5m, but they chose not to. Why? I’m guessing it was their way of sending a message to Harrison and other Steelers players who are considering playing a game of free agent chicken with the front office, “Don’t mess with us or else!”.
Will it come back to haunt us? Yes and no, I suspect.
At the end of the day, I suspect that Harrison will not have tremendous success at Cincinnati the way he did at Pittsburgh primarily because he’s playing out of position as a SAM linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. As a 3-4 OLB in Pittsburgh, Harrison’s role was to rush the passer and support the run. What made him so impactful was his tremendous speed, athleticism and low base which frequently allowed him to beat tackles to the outside and make plays on the QB. As a SAM linebacker, he will be focused more on stopping the run and dropping back in coverage – rushing the passer is not as high a priority. While he’s fairly good at both, that’s certainly not his strong suit.
All of which leads me to believe that, after this season is over, people will look back on the Steelers’ decision not to take him back after he tested free agency and conclude that it was a good call by the front office – “The Steelers always know just when to let players walk!”.
Regardless of how he performs in Cincy, I think it was a mistake. True, Harrison is 35, but he’s still got some wear left on the tires after having played relatively sparingly in the early part of his career. When he finally got healthy at the end of last season, we saw flashes of his old playmaking self. On a defense starved for big plays, Harrison is one guy that could have delivered. Also, with Woodley having had a bad year last season and Jarvis Jones still finding his way, we could have used the depth. It would have been great if Jones could have spent a year learning under Harrison. Finally, with the injury to Foote, the team could have potentially shifted one of those guys to the inside. A linebacking corp of Woodley, Timmons, Jones and Harrison sounds pretty formidable to me right about now.
Either way, we’ll get a glimpse of Harrison when his “Revenge Tour” cranks up on Monday Night Football in a few short hours. Let’s hope he doesn’t make the organization immediately start to regret their decision….