The Pittsburgh Steelers have unfortunately had their share of ‘controversies’, for lack of a better word in some cases, in recent years. Even amid a 13-3 season in 2017, there were plenty of them, and one centered around one of the most popular players in recent team history: James Harrison.
The team had just drafted T.J. Watt in the first round. As it became clear that they were moving forward with Watt, Harrison ended up as a gameday inactive, in part because they did not have him play special teams. There were reports of discontent, though he never really confirmed them, and he was ultimately released.
Harrison recently went on the Going Deep podcast, however, and did just that, talking about that situation and others. Remember, he originally retired prior to the 2014 season. The Steelers called him up to get off the couch when Jarvis Jones went down, and then they kept re-signing him to one-year deals. He says he was never brought in to be a mentor, but to play. I’ve excerpted large portions of the interview on that topic, which I include below:
I was never called to be a mentor. Never, never, dude. When I came back, the whole emphasis on me coming back, even the first time, was, you wanted me to come in and play this game. The crazy thing is, the first game, I’m told I’ll get 10-15 snaps. I ended up doing 30-40 snaps, first game. I was like, ‘okay, I don’t know about this’. My body was dead.
Leading into the other years, they wanted Jarvis Jones to start. So what they were doing, they were splitting time with us and all that. So if you go back, you’ll see in 2015, Jarvis was starting, and I think we went through a streak where we dropped three or four games. After we dropped those games, he now comes to me and says, ‘you’re starting’.
The next year he does the same thing, he starts him. In ’16, I think we drop maybe another two in a row, maybe three, and, ‘hey, you’re starting’. We go and we end up losing to New England. They sign me back for ’17. They end up drafting T.J., who, whatever.
I’m already expecting at least 40-60 percent of these snaps, is what it was. We get into OTAs, and they’re like, ‘you ain’t gotta practice, you ain’t gotta do nothin’. So we get to training camp, it’s ‘you ain’t gotta practice, you ain’t gotta do nothin’. Okay. Then I find out week three of training camp that Bud and T.J. are the starters—they beat me out. They beat me out, but I didn’t practice.
We get to Cleveland, the first game of the year, and I get like two or three snaps, whatever it is. I tell them right then and there. I tell Mike, I tell Kevin, ‘release me’. I said, ‘I see what y’all doing, y’all wanna play your young guys, I ain’t got no problem with that. But I’m not gonna sit here, that’s not what I came here, just release me’.
My agent call them every week and asked them to release me, for like five weeks, or whatever it was. We get to Kansas City. He dresses me for Kansas City. I get about 15 snaps. I go out there, I get pretty decent stats, if not better than both his starters. I don’t see another snap after that. I don’t get another play after that.
Again, release me. Like, let me go. His words, ‘I’d be a dumbass to release you and one of these dudes get hurt and go down’. I said, ‘alright, that’s what you wanna do, cool. But Imma tell you this, right here, right now, I said, if I ain’t playin’, I ain’t stayin’. So the game came and he didn’t have me dressed to play, I left. I went home. So I was trying to do whatever I can to try and make him release me. I would try and do whatever I could, like I wouldn’t do nothing in practice. I would be like, I’m hurt. So I started doing the, ‘oh yeah, my back hurts’, and then go in the weight room and squat 5-600 pounds, and then don’t practice.
Prior to saying that he would try to do anything to try to make Mike Tomlin release him, he started to say that he would literally go to sleep in meetings, but then took it back. It was reported at the time that he was falling asleep in meetings, however. Personally, I think he probably did, but he knew if he said it, it would make him look bad.
It’s also important to remember that the Steelers did not release him to fulfill his request. They released him because he was the fifth-string outside linebacker who was not dressing, and they needed a roster spot. While Marcus Gilbert was serving a four-game suspension, Cameron Sutton was activated from the Reserve/Injured List. So when Gilbert was ready to be activated, they needed to create a roster spot that they didn’t already have.
Of course, Harrison might not have been aware of the minutiae of roster-building in this sense, but I’ve always agreed with Tomlin on this. He signed a contract, and it would have been foolish to release him before they did.
I also consider Harrison a fool if he felt he was guaranteed any playing time, regardless of whether or not Tomlin actually said anything of the sort to him. Playing time is always sorted out as the season progresses. The Steelers didn’t know they would have Watt when they re-signed Harrison. They didn’t know if Watt would be ready. He was, and he played.
And Harrison is a liar when he says that he wasn’t brought back to be a mentor, because that’s what Kevin Colbert said he was brought back to be a mentor. “Before it was always him and his peers”, he said. “Now it’s James and his students in our eyes”. He also said they considered waiting to re-sign Harrison, but they wanted him in the building to help with the younger players.
“We actually thought about that but the values that he provides right now for those young guys we think trumps that waiting because he’s valuable in the building right now”, he said back in March…of 2015. “He’s been in the building voluntarily since really the end of the season. It’s been amazing to watch. Those young guys see it and they’re like, ‘OK, I think I’m supposed to do that too.’ We can’t have them there mandatory but they’re all kind of following his lead”.
Sorry, James. I brought the receipts. If you didn’t know you were supposed to be a mentor—if you didn’t know you weren’t guaranteed playing time—that’s on you. And you chose to be insubordinate. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but I’m not the one trying to justifying my actions with false information, whether it’s a matter of lying, forgetting, or simply not knowing.