Last week, I put my neck out by making the mere mention of something that would be unfathomable: James Harrison wasn't the player he used to be.
My comments were meant in the most respectful way while also acknowledging I was unhappy with the way he left Pittsburgh in order to join the New England Patriots. At the time, the thought by many was "here's another guy Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will get a lot of mileage out of."
For years, Belichick has breathed new life into veteran players who were supposedly down on their luck or once high draft picks. The laundry list of success stories parallels the ones that didn't pan out: for every Junior Seau there was a Chad Ochocinco.
That was the thought with Harrison, who was released by the Steelers in Week 15 and joined the Patriots in time to play in their Week 17 game against the New York Jets. In that game, Harrison wrecked havoc on a Jets squad featuring Bryce Petty as the quarterback, sacking the QB twice, piling on five total tackles (two assisted) and a forced fumble.
All of a sudden, Steelers Nation was angry with their own team for sitting Harrison. The ordeal which saw both sides get a breaking point which saw the linebacker's release was seen as mismanagement of an understood player, who even at 39 years of age, still appeared to have more than something left in the tank.
Then the playoffs arrived. The Steelers saw an early exit and Harrison continued on into the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl. Fans commented "Good for him" and even rode the false narrative of his impact with the Patriots to the case that drove me to write about how little Harrison had actually done against the Titans or the Jaguars.
Cleary Belichick was the evil genius in acquiring Harrison and Mike Tomlin was the fool who let him go. Nevermind the numerous comments from his former Steelers teammates talking about his reluctance to be a team player and a mentor. Forget that coaches see what we don't in practice and obviously had a reason for not playing the all-time franchise sacks leader.
No! The Steelers made a mistake.
Or did they?
I had pointed out last Friday that Harrison had hardly accomplished anything outside of a throwaway game against a feeble team (the Jets). In his two playoff encounters against the Titans and Jaguars, Harrison combined for six total tackles with no sacks, no forced fumbles, no pass deflections, or anything else of note outside of a single QB hit (not a sack) on Blake Bortles.
In fact, the ballyhooing of Tony Romo's praise of Harrison against the Jaguars neglected the fact that it was Kyle Van Noy, and Harrison, who created the strip sack of Bortles. Casual observers took that as validation of Harrison's impact with the Patriots, with many pointing out his "many sacks" as a rebuttal to my first article.
Yet, here we were, entering Super Bowl Sunday with the Patriots sacking opposing quarterbacks Bortles and Marcus Mariota 11 times... and, as hard as it is to believe, Harrison accounting for precisely zero of those sacks.
Did the Steelers know something we didn't? Or would Harrison have another Super Bowl moment that would make us all cringe and hide under tables and desks because they gave their chief rival a component to win another Lombardi?
The vindication of the Steelers would come on that fateful Super Bowl Sunday, as the Patriots began to fall behind the Philadelphia Eagles, following a day where their defense gave up 538 yards and 41 points. Among those setbacks were eight missed tackles, with a good portion of those visibly attributed to the former Steelers linebacker (such as this one).
— Blitzburgh (@Steel_Curtain4) February 5, 2018
As those who defended the Steelers decision pointed out, Harrison could no longer operate in the way the organization had shifted their responsibility of their outside linebackers. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt both ranked in the top five of edge defenders who dropped into coverage. The thought was Harrison, at 39 years old, could no longer do the same.
On Sunday, Harrison vindicated the Steelers in more ways than one. Harrison and the Patriots defense as a whole failed to bring down Eagles QB Nick Foles. Even with Harrison, New England didn't register a single sack on a backup quarterback.
Then to add to the woes, the things that Harrison was thought to still be an expert at, tackling and containing the run game, appeared to be a liability, such as this huge gain by Eagles RB LeGarrette Blount.
I wasn't the only one to notice, as perhaps more eyes were on Harrison to judge his performance than they would've been otherwise. He demanded his release to receive playing time, and on the biggest stage, his 91% of snaps yield one solo tackle and another assisted.
No sacks. No pass deflections. Nothing else of note... not even a hit on the quarterback.
Harrison would finish his postseason run of three games in a Patriots uniform with 7 solo tackles, 1 assisted tackle and no sacks. His legacy, thus far, is two sacks, on Bryce Petty... a second string QB on an awful team.
It would be very difficult to say his impact would be any different if the Steelers coaching staff gave him more snaps. Harrison played nearly half of the defensive snaps in his first two playoff games and almost the full Super Bowl game. He was clearly laying it all on the line, which you can admire. But at the end of the day, yes, the Steelers appear to have made the right call in moving investing in the future by riding with T.J. Watt instead.
When Harrison signed a contract his offseason to return for another season (and likely one more after as well) the thought was he would see the field more. However, Watt's play along with Harrison's diminished performance and locker room drama made him expendable.
For that, the Steelers should be vindicated by all for releasing Harrison.