The Pittsburgh Steelers’ season has been one imbued with distractions, and the most distracting distraction was the sudden, unforeseen, unceremonious cessation of James Harrison’s career in Pittsburgh.
Of course, Harrison’s termination surprised only those not intimately familiar with the inner workings of the Steelers locker room—Harrison had, according to teammates, been pining for a breakup since the beginning of the season. He slept through team meetings, if he attended them at all. On a non-zero number of occasions, he left the stadium after learning he’d been declared inactive. He feigned or otherwise milked injuries to escape practice, only to later perform one of his famed, Instagram-worthy workouts. By all accounts—including one from Bud Dupree—Harrison was not the strong locker room influence the Steelers presumably envisioned when they signed Harrison to a one-year contract last offseason.
It has become clear, then, that Harrison’s departure from the Steelers was not some kind of congenial thing; it was the result of weeks of bubbling, palpable distain that finally reached the surface, ostensibly after Harrison sat unused during Pittsburgh’s Week 15 loss to—fittingly—Harrison’s new employer, the New England Patriots.
Naturally, the tarnished legacy narratives have already been proposed, and the ink is still drying on thousands of James Harrison think-pieces (including this one). But before we consider this—that Harrison, clearly frustrated by his minimal role in Pittsburgh’s defense, forced his way out of town by being a bad teammate, or whatever—let’s consider the counterpoint: namely, that this isn’t entirely James Harrison’s fault.
Hallmarks of a messy breakup appeared weeks ago. Harrison indicated that he was frustrated with his role—or, more accurately, lack thereof—with the Steelers, and it’s easy to see why; through 15 games, Harrison has been on the field for just over four percent of Pittsburgh’s defensive snaps. This is a far cry from the 25 percent he was apparently promised before re-signing with Pittsburgh. Whether New England actually has the capabilities (or intentions) to fulfill a similar promise to Harrison remains to be seen, but it’s hard to fault a guy for chasing what he thinks he deserves.
And according to Harrison, this was an amicable split. “After the first week of the season, I said to them, it’s clear you want to play your younger guys and I understand, so why don’t you release me. You go on your way and I’ll go on mine. They said, ‘No, no, no, we got a role for you.’ ” If this is true, the fact that Harrison stuck around for 15 weeks without making his frustration a public issue is a praiseworthy feat—imagine sticking around the office for four months waiting for a promotion that never came. Furthermore, if there was any animosity between Harrison and the Steelers underpinning day-to-day operations, the Steelers certainly didn’t indicate as much, which is reflected by their 12-3 record.
Obviously, there is an inherent subjectivity to this whole James Harrison situation, as the discourse at this point is essentially “he said, he said.” Maybe Harrison didn’t handle things the right way. Then again, Harrison has yet to levy even a single insult against the Steelers, whereas his many of his former teammates are spitting hot takes into every microphone within earshot. But to say that James Harrison’s legacy is “tarnished” is ridiculous. To say that a seemingly acrimonious breakup downplays the significance of two Super Bowls, five Pro Bowls, 83 sacks, a Defensive Player of the Year Award, and one of the greatest individual plays in NFL history is absolute, unmitigated lunacy. To say that one of the greatest defensive players in the history of a franchise that boasts a ton of them is letting your emotions do the talking.
I wish James Harrison the best of luck.