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.