The disappointing finish to the Steelers season is only compounded by looming salary cap realities and difficult free agency decisions. Perhaps no choice the Steelers Brain Trust faces is more challenging than what to do about their top defense book ended by an All Pro outside linebacking tandem.
But one of those linebackers is 34 and has talked openly of how injuries are affecting his play at this stage of his career. Yet, no one denies his impact on the field or his value to the defense.
Waiting in the wings is a backup named Jason, who stepped up as a rookie to make a several plays at a critical junctures in a key game vs. Miami. Since then, he's developed steadily enough to tempt management to take the "out with the old, in with the new" route, gaining precious salary cap space in the process.
The logic behind such a calculation remains simple, but NFL personnel decisions can never be made with mathematical precision....
Obviously, the scenario above depicts the Steelers situation with James Harrison.
Well yes it does, but it was actually written to describe the situation the Steelers found themselves in February 1996 with the impending free agent status of Kevin Greene.
As Steelers Nation prepares for what Ed Bouchette has warned will be a "March Massacre," the decisions that the front office makes with respect to James Harrison's future will be watched more closely than all others.
And to fully understand both promise and peril lurking behind the various options the Steelers have at their disposal, it's useful to review how Pittsburgh Steelers managed a very similar situation in 1996.
When Pittsburgh Became "Blitzburgh"
When the Freeman McNeil verdict ushered the NFL into the free agency era, Steelers Nation feared that free agency would decimate Steelers much the way it destroyed the Pirates.
The Steelers had been one of the NFL's lowest paying teams in the 1980's and the media had conditioned fans to believe that Dan Rooney was cheap.
As such, far more attention was paid to the free agent defection of Jerroll Williams than to the signing of Kevin Greene. There's a reason why your mother told you not to believe everything you see on TV, because no one called the Steel City "Blitzburgh" until Kevin Greene arrived.
Although Greene had been a Pro Bowler and a five year starter posting several double-digit sack seasons the L.A. Rams, he didn't have a national profile until arriving in Pittsburgh.
That changed fast. Greene became an overnight sensation, vowing not to cut his hair until he won a Super Bowl and engaging in a ceremonial pre-game kiss with his wife.
Greene flourished in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers terrorized opposing quarterbacks with his help. In his first season with the team, 1993, Greene accounted for 12.5 of the Steelers 42 sacks. In his second he sacked the quarterback 15 times with the rest of the squad adding 40 more. In his third year Greene got nine sacks as the team total dipped back to 42.
- Number are nice, but they don't tell the full tale.
When the Steelers beat San Diego 16-3 early in 1993, ESPN ran a clip of Green declaring "This is like the WWF or something." Greene's quip was spot on because the Steelers defense was approaching levels of dominance not seen since the 1970's.
But if signing Greene had been a very wise move for the Steelers in 1993, in 1996 it also appeared to be one whose time had run its course.
Kevin Greene was to turn 34, his sack numbers were declining and he spoke openly with the Steelers Digest about suffering multiple "mini-concussions" during games that robbed him of his peripheral vision.
And besides, the Steelers had "Jason" waiting in the wings....
The Tale of Another Young Linebacker Named "Jason"
The Steelers took Jason Gildon in the 3rd round of the 1994 draft out of Okalahoma State. The Steelers rotated linebackers in those days much the way they currently rotate lineman, and late during critical November overtime victory over Miami, it was Gildon and not Greene who made a crucial sack of Dan Marino.
Gildon continued to rotate into the line up and notched 5 sacks in those two seasons despite only starting a single game. Kevin Greene himself speculated that the team had found his heir apparent, telling Steelers Digest that Gildon was ready to start.
Prior to opening Heinz Field, the Steelers simply didn't have the cash flow to renegotiate contracts to gain salary cap space. Tough choices could not be deferred, and in this case that meant choosing Gildon over Greene.
Benefiting from 20/20 Hindsight
The reigning Steelers career sack leader is none other than Jason Gildon. With such an accomplishment under his belt, it is tempting to praise Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher's wisdom in opting for him over Greene. But statistics can deceive.
Getting no contract from the Steelers and little interest elsewhere, Kevin Greene signed for a 2 year 2 million dollar contract with the Carolina Panthers, which at the time was a fairly pedestrian contract for such an accomplished player. Apparently the rest of the league assumed Greene was done too.
- They were mistaken.
Jason Gildon did do a respectable job but, measured by sacks alone, his production paled by comparison.
Four years is longer than the average NFL career, and provides more than enough data for an apples to apples comparison and Greene schooled a man ten years his junior.
Steelers Free Agent Decisions: From 1996 to 2013
The situations the Steelers are in now and the one they faced in 1996 are not 100% analogous.
Kevin Greene was a free agent. James Harrison has two salary cap complicating years left on his contract. Jason Worilds has double Gildon's sack production, but Worilds also benefits from 9 more starts. (And from whatever else you might read below, let's make it clear that James Harrison will not be posting double digit sacks at age 37.)
- But the similarities are almost eerie.
James Harrison is 34 years old. Injuries have kept him off the field and limited him while on the field. Harrison carries a big contract and the Steelers are facing stiff salary cap pressure. Moreover, there's a younger man in the form of Jason Worilds who looks ready to step up.
Yet, no one can look at the late season surge in Harrison's production and deny that he retains the on the field presence needed to make splash plays at critical junctures in games.
Further complicating things is the fact that the Worilds/Harrison isn't a simple ‘A' or ‘B' choice and the Steelers 1996 off season is again instructive.
Tempering Reason with Experience
The Pittsburgh Steelers did invest salary cap dollar in their outside linebackers in the spring of 1996 - they resigned Greg Lloyd.
Greg Lloyd was 30 and peeking into his prime. When the Steelers lost Rod Woodson to injury, Lloyd noticeably stepped up his play and Pittsburgh was a couple of Neil O'Donnell interceptions away from an upset in Super Bowl XXX as a result.
Lloyd's presence had to have given Steelers management some peace of mind in letting Greene go, in the same way that LaMarr Woodley is similarly reassuring.
- But unfortunately Greg Lloyd was injured on opening day 1996 and was never the same player.
Such injuries are one of the NFL's hard realities that no one can predict let alone negate and such realities do nothing to change the fact that the Steelers must ask themselves, in cold, calculating business terms, "How much bang for our salary cap buck is James Harrison giving us?"
If letting Harrison go is the only way the Steelers can say, resign Keenan Lewis, then Steelers Nation must trust Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to make that decision.
- But experience must temper such judgments.
From 1996 to 1999, while Kevin Greene was racking up 52 sacks to his career total with Carolina and San Francisco, the Steelers outside linebacking corps was manned by Chad Brown, Jason Gildon and Carlos Emmons.
Brown departed as a free agent after 1997, and during those next three years the Steelers outside linebacking corps screamed for a playmaker.
As the Steelers brass crunches numbers weighs odds, they would do well to remember that the on field playmaking presence that James Harrison brings to Pittsburgh is almost impossible to measure and equally difficult to replace.