Steelers linebacker James Harrison was released on Saturday after six legendary seasons as a starter. And while it may be a time to mourn the loss of such a great player, it's also important to remember that Harrison was just the latest in a long line of great Pittsburgh linebackers.
It's always a sad time when a legendary player such as Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison departs after such a memorable career. Harrison, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year who was released by the team on Saturday, contributed so much during his nine years in Pittsburgh--including 60 quarterback sacks, 507 tackles and five interceptions during his six seasons as a starter. Oh yeah, and there was that "once in a lifetime" play in Super Bowl XLIII, when he picked off a Kurt Warner pass and somehow managed to navigate his muscle-bound body 100 yards for arguably the greatest touchdown in NFL history.
In addition to his productivity, Harrison was known for being controversial, abrasive, intimidating and very, very focused during his time in Pittsburgh. Some might say he'll be impossible to replace, but if the past four decades have taught us anything, it's that No. 92 will more than likely be succeeded by another great linebacker or two, sooner rather than later.
Before Deebo, there was Peezy, former outside linebacker Joey Porter, who compiled 60 quarterback sacks and 10 INTs during his eight seasons in Pittsburgh. Porter was loud, bold and often out of control. He was once ejected after getting into a fight with a Browns player BEFORE the opening kickoff. Porter would walk around before a game with his abdomen exposed and talk trash with players from the opposing team. Peezy even talked trash in the press. In the week leading up to the divisional playoff game in Indianapolis during the team's march to Super Bowl XL, Porter called the Colts, among other things, a finesse team. He then backed up his talk by recording 1.5 sacks in the 21-18 upset victory.
Porter was Pittsburgh's third round pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, and he replaced legendary linebacker Greg Lloyd, who recorded 53.5 sacks, 659 tackles and 34 forced fumbles during his 10 years with the Steelers. Former Oilers Head Coach Jerry Glanville once described Lloyd as "the meanest man in football." Indeed, in addition to his productivity, Lloyd was known to intimidate opponents and often played on the fringes of good taste. One time, during a game in the Meadlowlands in 1989, Lloyd mimicked a pro-wrestling referee by "counting out" Jets' receiver Al Toon after he was knocked out by safety Thomas Everett. No, Lloyd wasn't hired for his disposition, but as Porter once said of his predecessor, "he was one of the baddest dudes to ever come through Pittsburgh."
Speaking of bad dudes, was anyone more ferocious than toothless middle linebacker Jack Lambert during his 11 seasons in Pittsburgh? Just like Silverback, Jack Splat was abrasive, but also very focused and never took a play off. And much like No. 92, when the time called for intimidation, No. 58 often led the charge. People celebrate Harrison's body-slam of the drunk fan in Cleveland, but what about Super Bowl X, when Lambert slammed Cowboys safety Cliff Harris to the turf when Harris was trying to punk Roy Gerela after a missed field goal? The Hall of Fame linebacker was also very productive, recording 1479 tackles, 23.5 sacks and 28 interceptions. Speaking of interceptions, few in Steelers history were bigger than Lambert's pick of Los Angeles quarterback Vince Ferragamo late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV that snuffed out the Rams' last true scoring threat and helped pave the way for Pittsburgh's then record fourth Super Bowl title.
Even though Harrison was often subjected to fines and suspensions for helmet-to-helmet and late hits, he was actually one of the best form-tacklers on the team during his time in Pittsburgh. But if you were to ask someone more familiar with the Super 70's, they might say the same thing about Hall of Fame outside linebacker Jack Ham. Ham, who played along side Lambert during his illustrious career, was not only a great tackler, he was almost always in the right place at the right time, and before Lawrence Taylor came along to revolutionize the position, Ham was regarded by many as the finest outside linebacker of all-time. His 32 career interceptions and eight Pro Bowl appearances certainly helped to solidify such talk.
I could go on and on, naming great Steelers linebackers. From Harrison, to Porter, to Lloyd, Lambert and Ham. From inside linebacker James Farrior, to Levon Kirkland and David Little who preceded him. From LaMarr Woodley, to Jason Gildon (the team's all-time sack leader), to Mike Merriweather, to Andy Russell, who like Farrior, probably had his best years after the age of 30 and also quietly captained a ship full of tough and aggressive personalities.
It's natural to be sad when a player of Harrison's accomplishments gets let go. But unlike once-in-a-lifetime players such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, they didn't break the mold when they made James Harrison.
While he was certainly unique, No. 92 was also just the latest model in a long assembly line of truly exceptional Steelers linebackers.
Here's to a great career, Deebo. And here's also to your successors. If the past 40 years are any indication, their play will be great, as will the memories they help to create.