Can Debo Do for Steelers What Jerome Bettis Did?

Ten springs ago Jerome Bettis faced a decision. The Steelers had just signed Duce Staley. Pittsburgh had no problem platooning the two, but could not afford two high-priced veterans in the backfield. Bettis could either retire, play outside of Pittsburgh, or take a pay cut.

  • Bettis opted to take less money, and 1309 yards 22 touchdowns and one Lombardi Trophy later, the Bus parked at Super Bowl XL

Last summer James Harrison faced a similar choice. The Steelers wanted him back, but not at an 8 figure cap it. The Steelers were willing to put their money where their mouth was. The salary cut gave Harrison the chance to earn it all back with incentives.

However, Harrison found the free agent market to be soft for a 35 year old linebacker coming off of multiple surgeries and declining production.

  • At one point, Harrison gave signaled he’d be open to returning to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers however, said thanks but no thanks, we’re moving on. And seemingly that, combined with the decision to draft Jarvis Jones in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft ended the story.

Steelers Harrison, Ending, Alternative B

Once upon a time, thanks to Hollywood, our stories ended in a neat bow-tied package. By happenstance, the world of sports followed this model

  • Franco Harris finished his last year in Seattle, and that was it – no scholarship year or even Three Rivers Stadium retirement press conference
  • Terry Bradshaw had his surgery and skipped town, not even to return for Art Rooney Sr.’s funeral

But times change.

The rise of digital technology has once again made the shape of our stories malleable, just as they were in the age of Homer (the ancient Greek poet that is, not Simpson.)

You no longer have to travel to Japan to see Glen Close commit suicide to end Fatal Attraction – you just press a button on your DVD. Greedo, not Han Solo, fires first. If actors of an orginal franchise get too old or die, well just do a reboot.

  • And something similar is happening in sports, at least with the Steelers. 

Rapid roster turnover and player movement became the norm 1990’s with the Freeman McNeil trial and the rise of free agency. The Steelers 20th and 21st century approaches here could not be more different. When a player either left or ask to leave:

  • Tom Donahoe’s response was “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out”
  • Kevin Colbert’s is, “You can come home again.”

Donahoe turned a cold shoulder to the likes of Jerry Olsavsky and Rod Woodson when they wished to return. Colbert has kept the welcome mat out.

Yet as recently as two years ago, Colbert espoused a different philosophy when it came to players the Steelers had released, when he all but ruled out a return of James Farrior and/or Hines Ward during  the 2012 off season.

Now it seems like James Harrison would like to follow in their foot steps.

The Case for and Against Harrison’s Return

The case against bringing Harrison back would seem to be self evident. This is a defense in need of youth and renewal. While the process has been underway for two years, it is picking up steam with the departures of Ryan Clark and LaMarr Woodley.

  • Why take a step back with a 36 year old linebacker?

The case for bringing Harrison back is more muddled. He played very little in 2013, and while strong against the run he wasn’t much of a force in pass rushing.

  • Nonetheless, an objective, cold-hard numbers case for Harrison can be made.

The James Harrison of 2014 won’t be the James Harrison of 2012 let alone 2010 or 2008. But the James Harrison of 2014 is better than Chris Carter or any other body the Steelers might bring in to back up at outside linebacker. Moreover, this James Harrison will add more value than is revealed on the stat sheet.

Harrison’s workout regime and game preparation are legendary. And in that right, he can set an example for a young defense, much the way that Hines Ward mentored Plaxico Burress and Bettis mentored Ben Roethlisberger.

Assuming that Harrison will take the veteran minimum, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would be wise to take him up on his offer to return.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

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