Is the Clock Ticking on James Harrison’s Time as a Pittsburgh Steeler?

The man at the center of Steelers Nation’s pre-free agency focus isn’t even a free agent…

…But that could change fast.

You may have heard of him. He goes by the name of “James Harrison” although the monikers “Deebo” and “Silverback” often get attached to his signature 92. In case you’re fuzzy, here are a few of his accomplishments:

And the phrase “James Harrison Pittsburgh Steeler” could also soon be history.

Steelers Ask Harrison for Pay Cut, Debo Says “Not So Fast….

The Steelers extended James Harrison’s contract in the 2009 off season with a deal that acknowledged Harrison had played cheaply prior to that point. It was also backloaded.

The Steelers will pay out 6.57 million dollars in 2012, but his salary cap value is closer to 10 million due to prorated bonuses. The Steelers want need to reduce his cap hit. The easy way to do that is with an extension/restructure.

That’s problematic as neither side figures Harrison would play additional years.  And Kevin Colbert indicated in his pre-free agency chat with the press that the Steelers would restructure contracts (and they did for Lawrence Timmons, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown) but that they were reaching the limits of their ability to restructure contracts.

  • But the Steelers are not seeking the easy way out.

As Ed Bouchette has reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers are asking Harrison to take a pay cut. The Steelers have done this with veterans before, most notably Jerome Bettis.

But Bettis was willing to take one for the team. He wanted to win a Championship and Super Bowl XL rewarded him for his faith.

  • But James Harrison’s agent said weeks ago that he didn’t see the need for Harrison to take a pay cut.

The two sides, reports Bouchette, are at an impasse. Harrison’s agent, Bill Praise, is saying all of the right things about Harrison wanting to be a Steeler. The Steelers are mum.

  • But something has got to give.

The Steelers were under the NFL’s salary cap last week, but signing William Gay likely brought them back up to or above the cap. And the Steelers have restricted free agents such as Isaac Redman and Emmanuel Sanders to resign; they undoubtedly like bring back some of their unrestricted free agents such as Larry Foote or perhaps Plaxico Burress.

To do that they need money. They can restructure LaMarr Woodley’s contract, but they don’t want to do that.

  • They can gain 5 million and change by cutting James Harrison outright.

The Steelers don’t want to do that because James Harrison still has something left, and he’s still better than Jason Worilds.

The two sides are still talking, but the clock is ticking….

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James Harrison’s Injury Lingers, Forcing Steelers to Rely on Worilds, Carter

The good news is that the James Harrison went through a full practice this week for the first time since Labor Day.

The bad news is that Harrison’s surgically repaired knee did not respond well, and he sat out the next practice, as Ed Bouchette from the Post-Gazette reported via Twitter (which ESPN subsequently picked up).  As if you need to be told that, this ladies and gentleman, is really, really bad news.

Nary a season ago, linebacking was the strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Three games into the 2012 season finds linebacking bordering on being a liability.

The Steelers have mainly used third year man Jason Worilds and second year man Chris Carter in Harrison’s absence. Measured by pure stats, neither man has done much.

As tracked by Pro Football Reference, these are Chris Carter’s 2012 numbers so far:

And, these are Jason Worild’s 2012 numbers thus far:

Stats of course provide an incomplete picture.

Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain has credited Chris Carter with playing well in the Steelers “almost” goal line stand in the loss to Oakland. Worilds did make some noise in Denver, but the next time he was visible was on the face mask penalty that helped keep Oakland in the game.

Its true the experience will benefit Carter and that the team needs the exposure with Worlids, if for no other reason than to give him every last chance to justify the faith they showed in him when they drafted him in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
While it would be welcome to see either of these men step up, Harrison can give this defense a boost in a way that neither of them is likely to do at this stage of their careers. But the odds are that Harrison will remain in street clothes for a while longer.

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Steelers Give Lawrence Timmons a Second Contract, Make the Right Move

“Follow the money” implored “Deep Throat” the inside source of the Watergate scandal.

If you want to know what the Pittsburgh Steelers see as the strength of their team, look at where they put their money.

    • James Farrior signed for five years and 18.25 million dollars in 2008

 

 

  • LaMarr Woodley signed for 6 years and 61.5 million dollars earlier this month

And today the Steelers announced that they’d signed Lawrence Timmons, starting inside linebacker, and the first pick of the Mike Tomlin era for six years and a cool 60 million dollars, including 18 in bonuses.

For those of you keeping track at home, that averages out to about a quarter of the 120 million dollar salary cap paid out to the starting linebacking corps.

The Right Move

As a rookie Lawrence Timmons had difficulty getting on the field due to some nagging injuries. Although he failed to break the starting line up in his sophomore season, he nonetheless made his share of “Splash plays” – his work in relief of James Harrison in the Washington game sticks out.

Timmons graduation to the starting line up in 2009 fell below expectations, but who didn’t fall short of expectations in 2009?

But in 2010 Lawrence Timmons came into his own.

While James Harrison and Troy Polamalu (rightly) filled the highlight reels for their eye popping plays against Tennessee, Timmons was flying around and seemingly in on every play and played a key role in shutting down Chris Johnson.

The Steelers defense played one of the best games in its history that hot and humid day against Tennessee, and the game also served as a metaphor for Timmon’s season. Guys like Harrison, Polamalu, and Woodley got most of the accolades, but Timmons led the team in tackles.

Locking Timmons up for six more years is the right move.

The Right Move II

In reporting Timmons signing, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette concludes that the Steelers have finished with their signings for the year. (The Steelers have had a contract negotiation black out since 1993.)

That means that Troy Polamalu and Mike Wallace, both in the final years of their contracts, will have to wait.

That too is wise on the part of the Steelers braintrust.

For as strongly as Steel Curtain Rising defended Troy Polamalu against the “overrated” charge this past summer, the truth is that Polamalu has missed games because of injury in four of the past five years, and he’s finished the functional equivalent of two of those in IR.

Make no mistake about it, the Steelers defense cannot be great without Troy Polamalu, and it would be a tragedy should wear any other uniform before beginning his “life’s work.” But the Steelers will have the option to franchise him at season’s end, and after making an honest assessment as to how much Polamalu has left in the tank.

Mike Wallace will be a restricted free agent next spring. The Steelers do run the risk that some other team will make an inane offer that they cannot match, but it is a risk worth taking.

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Woodley Re-Signs. How Does He Stack Up Against Lloyd, Porter, Gildon et. al.?

The Pittsburgh Steelers re-signed franchise player LaMarr Woodley today to a six year 61.5 million dollar contract with 22.5 million dollar signing bonus, as reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The deal makes Woodley the second highest paid Steelers player in history, second only to starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The term “highest paid player in Steeler history” is a relative one – in 1993 alone that title passed from Kevin Greene, to Greg Lloyd, then to Rod Woodson.

Still, the deal amounts to a slight shock – not that the Steelers signed Woodley, but that they made such a tremendous investment in him, particularly in terms of guaranteed money.

In just four years, LaMarr Woodley has registered 39 sacks, caught 3 interceptions, and forced 7 fumbles. Together with James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley forms the NFL’s most prolific outside linebacking tandem.

LaMarr Woodley vs. the Steelers Linebacker Legacy

The Pittsburgh Steelers yield nothing to any franchise when it comes to linebacking. Success at linebacker means contributing to that legacy; simply living up to it fails to suffice.

How then do Woodley’s first four years stack up against some of his predecessors in the Steelers 3-4 system:

Compared to those who came before him, LaMarr Woodley acquits himself quite well. He leads the group in sacks and forced fumbles, and ties for second most starts with Joey Porter. (James Harrison was not included, as he started very little in his first four years.)

Greg Lloyd trails him in sacks, but Lloyds other numbers reveal how special he is. The number of tackles is also telling, as it shows just how involved a player is in the defense, and here Woodley only trails Joey Porter and Lloyd. (Note on the stats, I’d thought that Lloyd’s high tackle number must be an error on the part of Pro Football reference, but the Steelers 1990 media guide confirms his 1989 total, which was 92 tackles.)

Of course stats can mislead. It isn’t just making plays, but making them in a timely fashion, and in this respect Woodley also excels, registering a sack in each of his post-season appearances, and of course Super Bowl XLIII effectively ended with Woodley’s strip-sack of Kurt Warner.

The Steelers have made a significant investment in LaMarr Woodely and anytime you write a check for 22 million you take a considerable risk.

But the Pittsburgh Steelers clearly believe in LaMarr Woodley, and so should Steelers Nation.

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Putting James Harrison’s 2008 NFL MVP Worth Season in Perspective

Fading memories do not allow a recounting of the precise game, but the moment itself is nonetheless vivid. It was late 1994, and Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene, with 14 sacks already under his belt, stormed into the backfield and threw the opposing quarterback to the turf.

Ready to record history, NBC Sports flashed the graphic:

“Kevin Greene ties Steelers single season sack record”

  • Except it was not to be

A penalty negated the sack, and Greene finished the game and the season with 14 sacks.

And thus Mike Merriweather’s single season sack record of 15, set ten years ealier, remained unthreated for another 13 season.

Until today. Until James Harrison got a crack at it. Fifteen games into his second season as a starter, James Harrison tied, then broke the record.

James Harrison: The Making of a Legend

We all remember from our elementary school that fables begin with a grain of truth, and then as yarns are spun and re-spun facts get exaggerated, truths gets stretched, and legends are formed.

  • James Harrison is a legend in the making, except for that his story requires no exaggeration.

Opposing quarterbacks look upon James Harrison with fear, knowing he is a man who will pursue them with relentless determination. Opposing offensive lineman see James Harrison as a player the must hold, lest their quarterback be pummeled.

Yet, for years to come Harrison will be held up as a beacon of hope to players who might not have great physical stature, may not be in high profile college programs, but have it where it counts: In the heart.

Harrison played at Kent State, a school more renowned for its role in anti-Vietnam protests than for producing pro football players. Harrison’s began his ride in the NFL in the off season of 2002, when he became a little noticed rookie free agent acquisition. From there is trajectory took the course of an errant missile.

  • During the next three seasons Harrison was cut five times, including a stint with the Baltimore Ravens, who detailed him to NFL Europe’s Rein Fire and the cut him summarily, without even so much as a thank you.

At this point Harrison was ready to hang it up and become a veterinarian, until a freak injury to Clark Haggans brought him back to the Steelers once more.

But the year was 2004, and this time James Harrison was here to stay.

Kent State Linebackers as Pittsburgh Steelers

Perhaps there is something in the water at Kent State. Perhaps it has something to do with years that end with the digit 4. Perhaps its due to something strange in the stars that brings a special alignment of time, place and dominant play at linebacker.

Thirty years before Harrison finally seized his spot in the Steelers roster, another undersized but overachieving linebacker came to the Steelers from Kent State, and his name was Jack Lambert.

  • Both are men of few words
  • Both are fierce copetitors
  • Neither man is wont to be intimidated

Its fitting then that Harrison shares a connection with a linebacker such as Jack Lambert, because Harrison is quickly showing he belongs in that elite company.

The Steelers Linebacker Legacy

The NFL has played 40 Pro Bowls since 1969. 15 Steelers linebackers have made a collective 46 appearances in those games. During that time the Steelers became sinuous with dominating defense.

The list of fellow Steelers linebackers who made the Pro Bowl reads like a veritable who’s of NFL All Pro Linebackers:

Andy Russell
Jack Ham
Jack Lambert
Robin Cole
Mike Merriweather
David Little
Greg Lloyd
Kevin Greene
Chad Brown
Levon Kirkland
Jason Gildon
Kendrell Bell
Joey Porter
James Farrior

Merriweather set the Steelers sack record in 1984, but his sack total never even approached double digits after that. Other than Kevin Greene, no even came close to breaking the Steelers sack record.

Going Beyond the Numbers

On its own, the Steelers single season sack record is impressive, but the truth is that numbers do not define greatness. For evidence of that look no further than Jason Gildon, who is the Steelers all time leader in sacks. Glidon was good, but does anyone consider him to be truly great?

In just two seasons as a starter James Harrison has shown he share something else with the likes of Lambert, Greg Lloyd, and Porter.

He can change the course of games with the force of his will. Consider:

  • Sept 29th vs. Baltimore
    The Ravens have a 13-10 one play after Pittsburgh has just scored its first touchdown. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco drops back 9 yards from his 20 and James Harrison is there, forcing a fumble which LaMarr Woodley returns for a touchdown.
    Harrison finishes the game with 11 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
  • October 5th vs. Jacksonville
    Pittsburgh has just taken the lead in the 4th with 1:53 to play. The Jaguars have the ball at their 39 with 47 second to play. James Harrison sacks Garrard and stips the ball, knocking them back to their 33. Two incomplete passes later and the game is over.
  • November 16, 2008 vs. San Diego
    The Chargers are holding 7 point lead but are backed up to their third. James Harrison darts into the backfield sacks Philip Rivers, strips the ball, and tackles McNeil for the safety
    40 plays later the Chargers are at the Steelers 17 with 1:33 left to play in the half. Philip Rivers what should be a sure touchdown pass that James Harrison intercepts at the 10 and returns 33 yards. The Steelers covert the turnover into a field goal. James Harrison has now accounted for 5 points in a game the Steelers will win 11-10.
  • November 30th vs. New England
    The Steelers already had the game in hand, with a 20-10 lead in the third quarter, but if they had any ideas about comebacks, James Harrison there disabuse them of such heroics, as he sack strips Matt Cassel twice on to consecutive drives.

These are just a few of moments from Harrion’s highlight reel. The blunt truth is that we still don’t know how dominate of a player Harrison can be, because James Harrison is held on almost every play.

Harrison Primed for 2008 Playoffs

The post-season is the time for PrimeTime players to truly step up. In the playoffs last year against the Jaguars, James Harrison had eight tackles, 1.5 sacks, and defensed 3 passes – one more than his regular season total for 2007.

Harrison did suffer a hip pointer in the Steelers regular season loss to the Titans, but he still returned to the game to record his record breaking sack.

He’s now had two weeks to rest.

If in football, unlike finance, past performance is any indicator of future return, Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers had better be ready.

P.S. As most of you know, on Monday January 5th, James Harrison was named the AP’s NFL Defensive Player of the year!

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Greg Lloyd’s Departure is Now Ten Years in the Past….

Man, how time flies. It hardly seems possible, but it has been ten years since the Steelers cut former All Pro linebacker Greg Lloyd. Pittsburgh yields nothing to the rest of the NFL when it comes to linebacking tradition, and Greg Lloyd distinguished himself as a top member of that elite group.

  • The Steelers drafted in 1987 Greg Lloyd out of Ft. Valley State in the six round.

Expectations of 6th round picks from Ft. Valley State normally run low, but Lloyd so distinguished himself that ESPN honored him  by ranking him 37th on this list of “Top 50 All Time Draft Steals.” Greg Lloyd would have ranked higher on the list, but so many of the things Lloyd brought the field were intangible.

If, as Mike Tomlin says, Hines Ward is a football player first and a wide receiver second, then Greg Lloyd was a warrior before he was an outside linebacker.

  • Greg Lloyd was about intensity, attitude, fury, and “Just Plain Nasty.”

What most people fail to realize is that Greg Lloyd played his entire career with an ACL missing in one knee, and another ACL basically stapled together in his other knee. Lloyd overcame these liabilities because he had an undeniable on-the-field presence.

Lloyd was relentless. Lloyd was not blessed with anything near the athletic skills of Rod Woodson, but Greg Lloyd set the tone for the Steelers defense.

When Rod Woodson went down in the first game of the 1995 season, Lloyd animated the concept of stepping it up. In his best season ever, Greg Lloyd made 117 tackles, registered 10 sacks, intercepted three balls, and forced seven fumbles.

Greg Lloyd exploded at the snap and wrought havoc in the offensive backfield. Seldom was 95 outside of the camera view when a tackle was being made. Greg Lloyd was the rare player who altered the course games with the sheer force of his will.

The Steelers were losing 9-3 at half time in the final game of the 1993 season to a mediocre Browns team. They needed to win for a shot at the playoffs. In the locker room Greg Lloyd read his team the riot act, smashing a chair, offering to go out and play offense if that unit continued to be unable to do its part.

Lloyd backed word with deed. Two weeks prior he’d torn his hamstring, but readied to play by doing more than the required rehabilitation. He dominated the Browns, leading the team in tackles, making one sack, forceing two fumbles, and saving a touchdown by running down a Brown ball carrier from what seemed like ten yards behind.

  • Unfortunately, in the first game of 1996 it was Greg Lloyd’s turn to go down with a season-ending injury.

He recovered and was back on the field for opening day 1997, but was slow to regain his dominating presence. Greg Lloyd opened the second half of the season by registering a sack in games 9, 10, and 11. He opened week 12 against the Eagles like a house of fire, knocking Bobby Hoying down as he threw the ball away on an early pass. After that play I remember proclaiming to the members of the PSFCOB at the Purple Goose Saloon, “Greg Lloyd is Back!”

Alas, that would be Lloyd’s last play for the Steelers. He seriously injured his ankle on that play, and a brush with Veteran’s Stadium artificial turf resulted in a staph infection that caused him to lose more than 20 pounds.

Hobbled by injury, Lloyd nonetheless reported to mini-camp and drilled with the team. Bill Cowher praised his competitive drive, but the team was forced to cut him shortly before training camp.

That was ten years ago this week. While Joey Porter, James Farrior, Jason Gildon, and most recently James Harrison have certainly carried on the Steelers linebacker legacy, no one has ever matched Greg Lloyd’s intensity, explosiveness, or on-the-field presence since then.

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