James Harrison, Patriot Not Steeler, Adds Extra Layer of Intrigue to AFC Playoffs

Something is odd about tradition-rich Pittsburgh cutting one of its legendary players, who ended up signing with one of its biggest current rivals
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I was away for a few days with my family for Christmas when this press release came into my inbox:

The Steelers activated offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert from the Reserve/Suspended by Commissioner List to the active roster, it was announced today. To make room on the roster, the Steelers released linebacker James Harrison. Harrison, the team’s all-time sack leader with 80.5, originally signed with the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent on April 22, 2002. He’s started 107-of-177 regular-season games played for Pittsburgh (117-of-192 in his NFL career).

I knew—everyone knew—the 39-year-old Harrison was on the outs with the Steelers. He’d played 40 snaps this year and had barely been a part of the Steelers rise to the second seed in the AFC playoffs. But it just seemed odd for a warrior in the Jack Lambert mold, a 14-year Steeler with 177 games in the black and gold, with a 2008 Defensive Player of the Year award earned, with two Super Bowl rings, with perhaps the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history—that 100-yard touchdown return of a Kurt Warner pass in the Super Bowl nine years ago—to his name.

And that was it. One of the classiest organizations in sports, releasing a great warrior two days before Christmas. No team embraces tradition like the Steelers. The decision seemed … odd and surprisingly unfeeling. I heard he might get re-signed by Pittsburgh; maybe this was just a roster shuffle, and he’d be back with the Steelers for a few pass-rush snaps in the playoffs, so this wasn’t the time for warm goodbyes. Maybe that was it.


But now that Harrison signed with one of Pittsburgh’s two Darth Vaders, the Patriots (Baltimore, of course, being the other), we can assume there’s something under the surface here. I just don’t know what it is. Mike Tomlin said Tuesday the team simply needed the roster spot for Gilbert. Perhaps. There’s still something here that we don’t know. One of your all-time most distinguished players gets whacked in Week 16 without comment, and … just nothing.

I want to tell you my best Tomlin/Harrison memory. This was in training camp in 2010. A little-known rookie from Central Michigan, Antonio Brown, was lined up as punt returner. And Harrison, the 32-year-old linebacker, positioned himself as the gunner in punt coverage. I was amazed. The Defensive Player of the Year just two years earlier, lined up in training camp covering punts. Harrison bolted downfield and veered in, unblocked, toward Brown. Flustered, the kid juggled and then fumbled the punt. Tomlin was delighted, and he shrieked his approval. “Kid got so nervous his arms wouldn't work!” the coach yelled. I asked Tomlin about Harrison covering punts like he needed to make a big play to make the team. Tomlin said, “Now that's a football player. At bed check here in camp, he'll be recopying his notes from the meetings during the day. He wants to get it perfect.”

Harrison capped that year with the 100-yard interception return in the Super Bowl win for the Steelers. And now this.

What James Harrison Joining the Patriots Means

Here’s the football oddity of Harrison: Unless he quite literally has fallen off a gridiron cliff in the past 12 months—and at this age, that’s certainly possible—the 2016 Harrison was pretty good. Pro Football Focus rated him the top-ranked Pittsburgh defensive player, with a 21.3 rating in 586 snaps. One NFL pro scout texted Monday after he signed with New England: “If we had a role for him, and it was earlier in the year, we’d have been interested. He can still play 10 to 15 obvious pass rush snaps a game.”

I don’t know what Bill Belichick will do with Harrison, but I love the move for the Patriots. They have one edge rusher they can count on: Trey Flowers. Other than that, they’re stunningly thin on the edge with players who can rush the passer entering the playoffs. It’s amazing New England has left itself so bare at one of the most important factor positions in football. I am just going to tell you that those who know Harrison think he’s still got the massive chip on the shoulder he had his whole career, since being a free-agent from Kent State and a World League player and an edge-of-the-roster guy in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. This is still the player who is as competitive and hard-working as any in the league … and he had a slew of good rush downs last season.

For the Patriots, imagine taking this man who desperately wants to play significant football, who surely now wants to show the Steelers they made a mistake with the release and the slim 2017 usage, and who lives to be an impact player in the playoffs. What’s the downside? I don’t see it. I know this: If the Steelers and Patriots meet in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 21 in Foxboro, and Harrison is one of the 46 active Patriots, CBS had better have about nine cameras iso’d on Harrison every time he steps on the field.

Merry Christmas, NFC: The No. 1 Seed Eagles Suddenly Look Very Beatable

Now for your email, starting with MVP feedback that I asked for Tuesday. In my column, I said I’d have Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Todd Gurley 1-2-3 in my MVP consideration, and I asked for your feedback. I believe I’d have Carson Wentz, Ben Roethlisberger and Case Keenum 4-5-6 with Week 17 to play.

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Keenum, considered a stop-gap, third-string QB, delivered one of the top passer ratings in the NFL in 2017. When Bradford went down, it wasn't hard to imagine the Vikings slipping either just into or just out of the playoffs. Keenum has made them, arguably, the best team in the NFC. Seems to me he belongs on your short list.​

He is, and I’ve got no problem with anyone considering his strongly.

It has to be Brady. He is often punished in MVP voting for his continued excellence (as Bill Belichick is for coach of the year) because every single season he leads New England to 12-plus wins (2017 is an incredible 8th season in a row) and a playoff bye. This season he has totally remade his game, and once again his team are the odds on Super Bowl favorites.​

Tom Brady is absolutely the MVP. He is most valuable when the team needs him the most - in crunch time when the game is on the line. No one executes two-minute drills better. He elevates his and his teammates’ games, slows the game down and makes clutch throw after clutch throw. As Tony Romo said as he was driving down the field to beat Pittsburgh, “Tom Brady is an assassin.”
—Chuck S., Brookline, Mass.

Hard to argue, especially with the fact that Brady has had to do so much more with a defense created on the fly (and is still being molded). And Brady had to make do without his favorite target, Julian Edelman, all season.

It’s nice to cherry pick stats. Here are a few: Gurley in all-purpose yardage is 250 yards ahead of Bell, 350 ahead of Hunt, and has 19 TDs. Bell and Hunt, combined, have 20. Brady’s quarterback rating is 104.2, Alex Smith’s 104.7. Sure Brady lost Edelman, but the guy has Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks. Nice having, um, favorable calls against the Jets and Steelers, also.​
—Josh K., Salt Lake City

The problem with making MVP cases for people is that you invariably end up knocking a great player who has had a great season. There are 1,696 players in the NFL active each week. If you are arguing over, say, the best two or three for Most Valuable Player, is it really necessary to try to convince me that somehow Alex Smith, who lost six of seven games in the middle of the year, was a better player and a more valuable player in 2017 than Tom Brady was? Invariably we have to pick one player—or sometimes two, and I have a handful of times split my vote on the NFL awards. So if asked why I choose Brady over Gurley, it’s that I believe I have to defend my choice and in so doing I have to say why I believe Brady has been more valuable. In general: Can you compare New England’s defense to the Rams’ defense? Does New England have a comp to Aaron Donald? Is it significant at all that in the middle eight games of the season, Gurley had four touchdowns? Is there any value in your mind to the Patriots having a better record than the Rams, and Brady to have been significantly better and more valuable than Gurley in the first 13 weeks of the season? It’s the last three weeks that have evened the contest here. While Gurley has been incredible the past eight quarters, at least through 15 games, that doesn’t swing the argument to Gurley over Brady for me.

Here is the big difference with Gurley. Because the Rams have been blowing out teams, he essentially didn’t play in the second half of the Colts game; he essentially didn’t play in the second half of the Cardinals game; he essentially didn’t play in the second half of the Giants game; and didn’t play much in the fourth quarter against Houston or Seattle. His numbers would be OFF THE CHARTS if he was playing full games. Thanks for listening!

Now that is a superb point. Thanks for making it. And it is a factor I will consider.

Let me use your own words to support Carson Wentz as the 2017 NFL MVP: "I haven’t seen the kind of inept offensive play I saw in this (Eagles/Raiders) game since, well, since the Texans earlier on Monday. Or since the Giants on Sunday. Suffice to say, the Eagles are in big trouble."​
—Tom C.

You make a good point. I just have an issue (when there are other very strong candidates) voting for a guy who will miss three-and-a-half of his team’s games. Not saying it’s impossible. Just saying he’d have had to have a gigantic lead in the MVP race to miss nearly 20 percent of his season and still win.

I think Carson Wentz should be the NFL MVP. You've said yourself that games in October and November mean as much as December. Wentz gave energy to that offense and that team, steering them to NFC home advantage for the first time in 13 years. You've also said yourself how bad the Eagles look at the moment. How can a 13-2 team look so bad? Because they've lost the Most Valuable Player in the league.
—Will E., New Zealand

Hard to argue with that. What we don’t know is if the Patriots would look as incompetent with Brian Hoyer playing instead of Tom Brady.

As a Rams fan, it pains me to say I believe Russell Wilson deserves MVP over Brady. While the Pats O-line struggles are well-known, the Seahawks O-line struggles are legendary. Not to mention the fact that Brady’s receiving options out of the backfield are still somewhat intact with James White and Dion Lewis. Now I know those guys don’t always stay healthy but that’s nothing compared to Seattle’s injury-plagued backfield. Yet in spite of that, Russell still closes out games with epic fourth-quarter numbers.
—Josh S.

I like your line of thought. Surprisingly, I got more email about Wilson’s candidacy than about any of the guys I had behind Brady.

The Steelers offense runs through him. He has obvious weapons in Brown, Bell and Bryant, but he knows how to get the most out of them. Even during inconsistent stretches, Ben racked up the yards. As has been shown in the past, a lesser quarterback will not get the same production. He is the reason the Steelers will play in Minnesota in February.​
—Jon, Pittsburgh

NFL Power Rankings Poll: Patriots Finish Regular Season On Top, As for the Browns . . .

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I have two suggestions to fix replay:​
1. Get the replay official one of those chess clocks. When he starts to look at the play, he hits the clock. If two minutes go past (or better yet, one minute) and he's still looking at replays, then there isn't enough evidence to overturn and the call stands.​
2. Get rid of replay changing the game. Baseball has a stat for errors. The errors are assigned to players by an official scorer who can take all the time he needs and even be talked into changing his scoring after the game. Do the same for the officials: The call on the field always stands and the replay guys can look at the tape and give the official an error on his stat sheet if he got the call wrong. The games would go faster (which could easily help ratings) and I think people would feel better about officiating if there was an acknowledgement that they got something wrong.

—Tom H.

Love number one. My problem with number two is you’re trying to get the play right, and ridding the game of replay eliminates that chance.

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What bothers me about the NFL is the total lack of credibility by the league. Excessive use of replay, record setting amounts of penalties, is it a catch or is it not (varies according to team) and the suspensions handed out that don't always match the crime. It has gotten to the point that when the NFL says the sky is blue, you have to look. Is it royal blue OR robin's egg blue???? The NFL needs to learn, as does society as a whole, that you cannot legislate perfection. Peter, thanks for a great column and body of work throughout your career. I always feel like you're sitting there with me, either a beer or coffee in hand, speaking WITH me, not at me!​

Thanks a lot, Frank. So good of you to say. I love your line, “You can’t legislate perfection.” It’s a game played by humans, officiated by humans, lorded over by humans. You’re going to have mistakes. The best thing the league can do, in my opinion, is eliminate the obviously wrong mistakes.

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You mention you would want Hue Jackson back for a third year even with one win in two years. Love to know why. What is the point of keeping a coach with zero success running a team?​

I know Joe Thomas pretty well, and we’ve had some frank talks over the years about the myriad coaches he’s played for. He told me a couple of weeks ago how much he values Jackson, and how much he hopes he stays. And you look at the dysfunction, and my point has always been this: The more often you change coaches and GMs, the more you set back your organization. The three foes of the Patriots in the AFC East have had 24 coaches between them since Bill Belichick was hired by New England in 2000. That has been a huge factor in the Patriots’ dominance in the division since 2001.

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Bit of a double standard that you seem to be applying here regarding Earl Thomas. If you heard that the Seahawks were shopping him around the league you would praise them for seeing what they could get for an aging vet like him. Thomas shops himself to a potential suitor and it's "awkward." Like ET said, at some point the Seahawks are going to kick him to the curb. Good for him for reaching out to another team. There is no loyalty in the NFL: it's a business, pure and simple.​
—Doug, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Disagree. There’s a time and place for everything. You’ve just won a game to keep your team in the playoff race, it’s the most important time of the year, and you run up to a coach and tell him to keep you in mind in the off-season. Imagine if Pete Carroll ran up to Jerry Jones post-game and said, “Jerry, if they kick me to the curb after the season, keep me in mind for the coaching job.”

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I sit about 30 feet below Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson at home games. Richardson usually sits in his box, stone-faced, no matter what goes on the field. There was much speculation in our section if he would show for the final home game. The woman next to me muttered something under her breath, saying she hoped he wouldn't show his face. But Mr. Richardson did show and the fans in my section turned around and waved. He smiled broadly and waved back at the fans, both before the game and after Cam Newton salvaged a victory. What SI reported, very sad and surprising, but important in this day and age, was disappointing; yet it shows that many men who do bad things have also many good things in their lives. Richardson brought something to Charlotte that energized the local economy, brought a community together and gave this PSL holder 20-plus years of joy and satisfaction. The fans' response Sunday told me that others recognized that too.​
—Omer T., Wilkesboro, N.C.

Thanks for writing, Omer. When a man’s life is considered, all aspects go into the equation. And the good of Richardson should be a big part of his legacy too.

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Thank you for sharing Larry Fitzgerald’s thoughts on one of the great living Americans, John McCain. As a Canadian, I observe politics south of the border with amusement, bemusement and bewilderment sometimes, especially over the past 16 months. I cannot fathom how great legions of the country haven’t risen up in anger over the verbal disrespect of this highly ethical and heroic man from Arizona by your current President and his supporters/enablers. That said, knowing that respected athletes like Fitzgerald hold Senator McCain in such high regard brings my faith in our great neighbo(u)r and greatest friend back into line. Live long Senator McCain, and please keep writing, Mr. Fitzgerald! And thank you sincerely from the cold of Edmonton​.
—John, Edmonton, Alberta

You’re welcome. Fitzgerald did a heck of a job on that piece.

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