Chances are, we have seen James Harrison in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform for the last time. The Steelers released the 15-year veteran in order to open up a roster spot necessary for the activation of right tackle Marcus Gilbert from the suspended list. Previously, rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton was activated from injured reserve when Gilbert went onto the suspended list.
The logical imperative of the move is very much at odds with the emotional attachment that Steelers fans have to Harrison, also known as Deebo and Silverback, who was for a short period of time arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL during the late 2000s.
As I have said elsewhere, if you remove the names from the discussion and look at the roster based on the depth chart and playing time, the release of Harrison makes sense. He is nearly 40 years old, has been inactive for almost two thirds of the games, and has only played a couple dozen snaps, registering three tackles and a sack, all of which came in one game.
He does not play on special teams and he plays at a position where the team not only has entrenched starters, but also valuable depth players who are key contributors on special teams, while he does not offer anything in the third phase of the game. A third-string player who does not play on special teams will always be on the chopping block.
But when that third-string player is James Harrison, there’s still a funny feeling about the whole thing. How could the Steelers do that to him? Except they have done it to him before, although the last time was because he refused to take a pay cut, and ended up playing for less with the Bengals.
I think that, for Steelers fans in my age range, there are four primary players most likely to be named as their favorite player: Hines Ward, Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu, and Harrison. I know speaking personally, I have Christmas tree ornaments of all four of them. They all transcended the game, and yet only one of them will have ended his career on his own terms, that being Miller.
Unfortunately, it’s the most common story in the NFL. For players who truly love the game, and are skilled enough to be allowed to play it for a long time, if it’s not their body, then it’s their team that has to tell them when to quit. The list could go on ad infinitum, but let’s just throw Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel on top of the pile. James Farrior, too. You can fill in the rest yourself.
Harrison still doesn’t appear quite ready to quit, even though he has literally retired once before, several years ago. It’s not that he doesn’t put in the work, or that he can’t play anymore. It’s not. He still does, and he still can. But this seemed to be an amical split. Many have called this disrespectful, but is it really any more disrespectful than letting him sit on the bench week in and week out?