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Cutting James Harrison Was the Wrong Move for the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers got worse on Saturday, and they weren’t that good to begin with.

The Steelers released James Harrison, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and that was a mistake.

NFL games are not won or lost in March, but right now it’s hard to feel good about the Steelers’ chances of improving on their 8-8 record next season.

The Steelers had been cleaning up their salary cap mess by restructuring contracts. But unlike last year, when they released Hines Ward and James Farrior, the process had been relatively pain-free.

At some point the Steelers were going to have to let go of a player they would rather have kept.

Harrison was the wrong player to cut, however.

A five-time Pro Bowler and 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison was fourth in franchise history with 64 career sacks, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He gave the Steelers defense so much of its identity. The Steelers defense is less intimidating without Harrison filling the No. 92 jersey.

When asked last summer how well he thought his surgically repaired neck would hold up in a game, Peyton Manning said he wasn’t worried but that he wasn’t exactly inviting Harrison to come and get him in the 2012 season opener.

“I love you and don’t take this as a challenge now,” Manning told Harrison through ESPN.  “Go easy on me if you can.”

Harrison, not LaMarr Woodley, was the first player who came to Manning’s mind when he thought about the tenacity of the Steelers defense.

It turned out Manning didn’t have to worry about Harrison. He missed the first three games after waiting until August to have surgery on his knee.

Harrison struggled when he came back, but slowly began to resemble his old self later in the season. He tied for the team lead with six sacks. That’s not much of an accomplishment on a team that gave too many opposing quarterbacks time to have a coffee and read the paper before throwing the ball, but five of those six sacks came in the last seven games. Harrison’s two forced fumbles came in December.

Even though Harrison will be 35 next season, he looked less and less like an aging player as the 2012 season went on.

The Steelers seem willing to let Cortez Allen take over for Keenan Lewis as a starting cornerback based on Allen’s performance in the final two games of 2012. Yet after a strong second half of 2012, they wouldn’t keep Harrison unless he took a pay cut.

Harrison was scheduled to make $6.57 million next season, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Steelers were slightly under the $123 million salary cap, but needed a little more maneuverability to try to keep some of their own free agents before the free-agency signing period begins on Tuesday. Harrison’s release clears $5 million in cap room.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t look like the Steelers are going to touch Willie Colon and his $5.5 million salary. As of Thursday there were no talks with the injury-prone offensive lineman about a pay cut or restructuring, according to Pro Football Talk.

Shouldn’t Colon have shared in the sacrifice? Colon has had three straight seasons cut short by injuries, yet apparently will still be around while Harrison chases opposing quarterbacks – maybe even Ben Roethlisberger – for another team.

Jason Worilds is the likely frontrunner to replace Harrison. He’ll get some competition from Chris Carter and perhaps a high draft pick, but the Steelers invested a second-round pick on Worilds in 2010. It’s time he gives them a return on that investment.

The Steelers released Joey Porter after the 2006 season because Harrison was ready to take over his starting spot. They’re releasing Harrison because of money, not because they feel Worilds is ready.

Worilds has shown flashes, and perhaps it’s encouraging that his sack numbers have gone up each year. He had two his rookie year, three in 2011 and five last season.

Worilds’ progress will depend a lot on Woodley’s ability to again perform like a player deserving of the team’s second-highest salary. If it requires two blockers to occupy Woodley, like in the first half of 2011, Worilds might be able to get free more often in the backfield.

At the moment, neither Woodley nor Worilds scare anyone.

Not like James Harrison did.

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4 comments

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  1. charles maftin

    John your points are very good. Perhaps you can explain Woodley too.

  2. Mike Batista

    Good point, but why didn’t they make Colon take a pay cut?

  3. John

    I disagree with you. Harrison has to realize that what he has produced over the past two years doesn’t warrant what he is being paid. If we as fans don’t produce at our jobs we are fired. Why not the same standard for pro athlete’s. A pay cut wouldn’t have been horrible for him, plus would have given him the chance to show he can perform at a high level. He refused. If the rumors of what they were offering are true, if he truly felt the team was more important then himself, he would have taken it. He was great, but hasn’t been for at least two years. Can’t live on the past, the NFL is a what have you done for me lately league. Harrison hasn’t produced for 2 years. He has a reputation but that doesn’t produce sacks. When Porter was released people said the same thing and the same comments about Harrison as they are Worilds now. That is was a downgrade and he wouldn’t fill the void. I think he did a great job, and trust the orginization they know what’s best in the end. Change is hard, and releasing beloved players is very hard, but all good things come to an end, and I don’t feel the Steelers made the wrong move, just a necessary one.

  4. charles maftin

    That is the unspoken about Mr. Harrison, he made Kiesel a better player. Who knows what the FO thinks?! I strongly disagree with how they treated Wallace last year, and this years comedy with Gay, Lewis, and Starks and Foster, andnow James… This maybe Colbert”s defining year….

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