There seems to be a lot of chatter lately around this notion that the Steelers should or will have to release James Harrison this offseason. There’s several reasons available for this argument; some harp on one more than others but if you talk to those that think he should be gone they’ll try to make a very compelling speech but in the end it would just be the wrong idea.
-Salary cap: This one is the only legitimate reason in my opinion but even this can be worked out. Harrison is one of the highest paid players on the team, signing a contract in 2009 for 6 years worth $51.75 million. He’s certainly earned his money so far, being one of the most productive players on the team week in and week out. His base salary is $5.315 million but his cap hit includes a pro rated signing bonus and takes it to $9,430,500. That’s a monster size number for any team to handle no question about it. However, with the Steelers ability to maneuver around money to get cap compliant each year, they’ll be able to handle it.
Restructuring his deal should be an obvious solution, pushing back his yearly salary off of this years cap by giving it to him in a signing bonus. They do this sort of thing every year with players, every team does. The team has already redone Ike Taylor, Lamarr Woodley, and Lawrence Timmons’ contracts plus they released Battle and McFadden. As of now they are under $10 million year to free up which is not a tough thing to do when you have a front office headed up by Omar Khan. There are other ways to free up money with restructures and cuts yet to come that should keep Harrison safe.
-Injuries & age: Those 2 back surgeries are a distant memory right now for most everyone. Early in the season he was visibly slower and not as powerful, that’s to be expected after not being able to work out like he usually does. We all remember him barely able to chase down a Quarterback after beating the Tackle. That orbital bone injury might have been the best thing that happened to him, if that’s possible. He missed 4 weeks with that injury but was able to take that time to continue to get back in shape in the training room as well as just generally heal up. He came back in week 9 against Baltimore and had 8 Tackles and 3 Sacks. He also put up 3 Sacks against the Bengals and 1 vs the Rams. Harrison finished up the year with 59 Tackles, 9 Sacks, and 2 Forced Fumbles. Nobody can look back and tell what might have happened but you have to think he would have been closer to 15 Sacks on the year if he doesn’t miss those 4 games. Consider too he did it basically on his own because Lamarr Woodley missed 6 games with a hamstring injury and was largely ineffective when he did come back. Harrison can still get it done, there’s no reason to cut him because of injury or age right now.
-Fines & Suspensions: Considering how bad 2010 was for him, having been fined $125,000 over the course of the season, he played by the rules for the most part in 2011. The only blemish was the suspension for the hit on Colt McCoy which I still say was bogus because of the timing of the hit. He may not like it, and he certainly can’t stand Roger Goodell but James can play within the rules of the new NFL; although he may bend them just a tad here and there.
-Social: This isn’t even a valid reason of all to consider letting him go fi you ask me. Honestly, I think most fans think his comments are pretty funny, and those that don’t may not like them but more often than not they’re true. When he tweeted, “Told you, cheaters never win!!!!!!!!!” it of course got the attention of the nation media. I would guess that every major sports outlet has an employee who gets paid to watch Harrison’s twitter account. It is what it is; Harrison is going to speak his mind no matter what. It’s what you get when you have a player like him on the field. He’s a team player, a great guy in the locker room and respected on the field.
I will say his comments in the Men’s Journal article weren’t exactly stellar but to be fair some of them were taken out of context. Should any of us expect anything less out of a man who’s as old school in his style of play as he is with his attitude about football in general? Maybe he should have been playing back in the 70’s.
The Steelers take image seriously and I’m sure Art II cringes every time Harrison makes a newsworthy comment somewhere, but it’s not like James is the first player in Pittsburgh to shoot his mouth off. They can handle it.
The last major reason to not even think of releasing Harrison is probably the most compelling: Who are you going to get to replace him? You already saw how bad things could be when he was out and Woodley was missing too. Jason Worilds did play a bit better down the stretch but there’s no way you can count on him to be as effective as the team needs him to be if Harrison is gone. That means you have to draft another OLB and hope he can start right away. Considering the needs on offensive line, defensive line, and linebacker depth already that should be enough right there to keep him around.