Sports commentator throw around the word “Legend” a lot, perhaps too much sometimes. But how do you really define a sports legend?
Webster’s defines “Legend” this way: “A story coming down from the past; especially : one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable.” That’s OK, but I like my 8th grade English teacher Mrs. Marylyn Lev definition: A story based on some historical facts that grows through the years due to exaggeration.
- If Mrs. Lev’s definition is better it remains insufficient when it comes to describing Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison.
James Harrison is most certainly a Pittsburgh Steelers Legend, in the truest and purest sense of the word, yet James Harrison’s story neither contains nor requires exaggeration.
Capsule Profile of James Harrison’s Steelers Career
You’ve heard the story enough times that you can recite it in your sleep. This site has rewritten and rewritten the story enough times that we won’t do so again here out of fear of provoking a dreaded “duplicate content” penalty from Google.
But here is James Harrison’s short-hand history:
The Steelers signed James Harrison as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2002. Bill Cowher had to be convinced to keep him around. The Steelers cut James Harrison four times and the Baltimore Ravens cut him once. Joey Porter’s ejection got James Harrison his first start, where he body slammed a drunk Cleveland Browns fan.
Although James Harrison had 4 sacks in four starts by the end of 2005, Bill Cowher kept him on the bench behind Clark Haggans until he stepped down.
As he was reviewing the Steelers roster heading into the Mike Tomlin era, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote (3 times in one article) James Harrison needs to play more. Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau listened, as James Harrison almost single handedly defeated the Baltimore Ravens in the Steelers 75 Anniversary Game.
James Harrison followed up that act by winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008, and authoring perhaps the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history in Super Bowl XLIII.
Since that time James Harrison has done nothing of note except overcome numerous injuries, shift the course of dozens of games by making splash plays at opportune times, retire and then come back only to lead the Steelers in sacks, and of course break the Steelers sack record.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Harrison
On November 13th, after the Dallas Cowboys scored two touchdowns inside of the 2 minute warning this site declared that the Cowboys loss proved that the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t that good. And that pronouncement came before knowing that Cam Heyward was lost for the season.
- The Steelers of course went on a 9 game winning streak that ended in the AFC Championship game.
If you’re looking to define 1 decision that defined the Steelers 2016 turn around it was Mike Tomlin’s promotion of James Harrison to full time starter. Yes, the championship-caliber play by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell was necessary. As were Chris Boswell’s field goals, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier’s splash plays, Bud Dupree’s emergence and Sean Davis’ development.
- But in less than half a season of starting, James Harrison led the Steelers in sacks and turned around a leaky run defense.
James Harrison also added two and a half sacks in the playoffs, including a strip sack that essentially ended any threat of a Dolphins comeback in the playoffs. Beyond those objective accomplishments, James Harrison is a leader both on and off the field, as evidence by his showing up in the locker room to lift weights the morning after the Steelers playoff win over Kansas City.
James Harrison is the type of player that the Steelers need if they’re to bring up Lombardi Number Seven in 2017.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Harrison
As the headline suggests, the case for the Steeler resigning James Harrison isn’t as cut and dried as the numbers might suggest. And you can find the reason in the rhetorical question Mike Tomlin posed when he promoted James Harrison back to the starting lineup: “What are we saving him for?”
- There’s a double edged implication to Tomlin’s self-inquiry.
On the on-hand, he clearly (and rightly) made the determination that the Jarvis Jones experiment had failed and that Harrison gave the Steelers their best chance to win. But the other side of that question correctly implies that Harrison needed to be “saved.”
Indeed, various injuries limited James Harrison’s effectiveness during portions of the 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 seasons. He also injured a shoulder during the playoffs and perhaps that limited his effectiveness vs. the Patriots.
- At age 39, James Harrison clearly has a lot left in the tank, but is that enough to carry him through a full season of starting?
Even if it is, there’s another question Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter must answer? Can James Harrison still do everything the Steelers defense needs him to do? Clearly, James Harrison remains a fearsome pass rusher, and he’s still one of the stoutest run defenders in the league.
But the AFC Championship game proved Harrison can’t be counted on to cover running backs, tight ends and receivers, even in short yardage situations. Those two limitations add up to very big “IF’s” when it comes to James Harrison’s future with the Steelers, and “IF’s” will not bring the Steelers another Lombardi in 2017.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Harrison
Moments after the Steelers latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots James Harrison declared he wasn’t done, and Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II have all said they’re open to James Harrison returning for another year.
- That’s the right attitude for all parties involved.
James Harrison embodies the concept of Legend. Even in the world of sports, Father Time manages to reduce legends to mere mortals, but every indication we have seen is that he still hasn’t worked his black magic on James Harrison yet.
James Harrison wants to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, and the Steelers want him back. Fortunately James Harrison’s 10th contract with the Steelers has ensured that this will happen.
Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.