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The James Harrison envelope incident is only a big deal if you want it to be

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Do you think the James Harrison “Envelope-gate” is a really big deal? If so, I penalize you 15 yards for excessive worrying.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Did you listen to the Going Deep podcast in-which James Harrison was interviewed by Steven Cheah and Willie Colon? If you did, perhaps you thought it was insightful and funny.

If you didn’t, well, you likely only focused on the part where Harrison implied that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin gave him an envelope of cash after he was fined for a helmet-to-helmet hit way back in 2010. And if you focused on that part, you may be embarrassed to be a Steelers fan. If you’re not embarrassed, you’re outraged that Harrison would sell out his former team and coach and share those dirty locker room secrets. If you’re not an outraged Steelers fan, perhaps you’re an outraged fan of another team that has now jumped to the conclusion that paying a player’s fine is either equal to the Saints bounty-gate or some sort of Spygate-like incident in-which Pittsburgh gained a competitive advantage.

That’s right, a competitive advantage...by agreeing to cover a player’s fine if he takes out Mohamed Massaquoi, the Browns’ wide-out that received the helmet-to-helmet hit that led to Harrison’s $75,000 fine and a possible scandal a decade later.

First of all, what bounty involves a player getting his fine covered by the coach/team? What incentive would Harrison have to do that? Shouldn’t there be a profit for all that trouble? Secondly, say it wasn’t a bounty, what competitive advantage would the Steelers have gained by taking out Massaquoi and/or covering Harrison’s fine? He was still fined, wasn’t he? The team was still penalized 15 yards during the game. And with each penalty came a harsher fine. How could it possibly benefit the team to keep paying them? Whether Pittsburgh covered the cost of the fine or not, the league was still getting its money, and Harrison was inching closer and closer to suspension.

What this sounded like to me was the team feeling as if its player was being singled out by the league. If you remember 2010, that’s when all the stuff suddenly hit the fan in terms of the NFL trying to legislate head shots out of the game. It was a national scandal. Former players were in the news constantly for the tragic effects of years of playing the game of football in an era when concussions and other traumatic head injuries were not taken seriously. The problem was the legislation started during the season, and players, coaches and officials had to adjust on the fly. You may remember the helmet-to-helmet hits Harrison was fined for, but you may not remember some of the legal-looking hits where Harrison was also penalized and/or fined for.

One such play occurred in a blow-out victory over the Raiders at Heinz Field. At one point during the game, Harrison hit Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell just as he threw a pass that was intercepted by Ike Taylor (of all people) and taken to the house for a pick-six. Only problem was the penalty on Harrison for roughing the passer. To the naked eye, it looked like a perfectly legal play, but to the officials who were suddenly on the look out for illegal hits (especially by James Harrison), it was deemed excessive.

With plays like that in mind, perhaps it was no surprise general manager Kevin Colbert was supposedly just as contentious as Harrison was when he and Harrison visited the league offices that season to appeal Harrison’s fine(s).

If this envelope story is true (and everyone but Harrison has reportedly denied it), again, what it sounds like to me is a team saying to its player, “This fine is bullspit, and we got your back.”

If you’re a fan of NFL history, chances are you’ve watched many interviews of former players on old NFL Films features. And if you have watched those shows, you may have seen a few former players from a bygone era joke about their old teams habitually covering their fines for illegal hits, off-the-field conduct, etc.

Of course, that was then, and this is now. And now is a time when every mole hill is turned into Mt. Everest.

Maybe you think the Steelers covering Harrison’s fine (perhaps more than once) allowed him to continue his rampage and carnage totally unfettered and without any regard to his fellow human beings. That may have been true, if not for the one-game suspension Harrison received late in the 2011 season for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns’ quarterback Colt McCoy during a Thursday night game. The move was considered unprecedented back then, because it was the first time Commissioner Roger Goodell had suspended a player for a helmet-to-helmet hit.

Finally, for all of his bravado and stubbornness with regards to the league’s crackdown on head shots, Harrison actually did change his game, something that wasn’t really that hard for him to do. Harrison may have had a disposition similar to Jack Lambert, but his tackling technique was also a decent imitation of Jack Splat’s. In other words, Harrison, who, by the way, was a damn-good football player (the all-time sack-leader in franchise history, they tell me), tackled people legally and with good form far-more often than he did illegally.

I don’t know what’s going to come from “Envelope-gate,” but if it’s much more than a decent soundbite from a really good podcast, well, that would be excessive.