Super Bowls are not won without players like James Farrior.
His teammates will make the flashier plays. They’ll make more Pro Bowls. But at the center of it all is the leader quietly blending his teammates’ talents with his own to reach great heights.
He played 15 seasons in the NFL, the last 10 with Pittsburgh in a career that should at least earn him a spot in the Steelers' mythical Hall-of-Fame.
Farrior started 15 games as a rookie for the Jets in ’97, helping New York compile a 9-7 record after going 1-15 the previous season. After an injury saddled his second season, Farrior started only six games in ’99 and ’00 before breaking out in 2001. He started every game and filled the stat line like few linebackers can: 143 tackles, nine pass deflections, three forced and recovered fumbles and two interceptions.
Restrained optimism is the best way to describe Farrior’s arrival in Pittsburgh in 2002. The Steelers rarely make big off season splashes, with the biggest off season prize in franchise history being Jerome Bettis coming to town in 1996 from the Rams. And although Farrior had a strong 2001 season, most Steelers fans couldn’t tell James Farrior from James Franco.
It wouldn’t take long to change that.
While still decent, Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t exactly the Steel Curtain in 2002. Farrior helped the Steelers transition their defense from an older unit to one of the NFL’s youngest. In his sixth season, Farrior helped mentor rookie Larry Foote. Farrior became even more valued when fellow linebacker Kendrell Bell, a rookie sensation and Pro Bowl selection in 2001, was limited due to injuries.
Farrior helped lead a young defense through some growing pains in 2002 and ’03 before he and the team broke out 2004. It was his best statistical season as a Steeler: four interceptions and a touchdown, three sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He stated all 16 games and was named an All-Pro as Pittsburgh steamrolled through the AFC with a 15-1 record.
Farrior and the Steelers were all the noise that season. In a two-week span, Pittsburgh defeated both eventual Super Bowl participants by the count of 61-23. The 34-20 win at home against New England snapped the Patriots NFL record 21 game winning streak.
While he wasn’t outlandish like his teammate, fellow linebacker Joey Porter, Farrior was an extremely vocal player. NFL Films must have gotten the memo and decided to install a wireless microphone on him on many occasions throughout his Steelers career. A week after the New England game, he was mic’d up as the Steelers faced the high powered Eagles. Featured as the NFL’s Game of the Week by NFL Films, Farrior took center stage. He vocally and physically led the Steelers furious charge, stymieing Donavan McNabb, Terrell Owens and Bryant Westbrook. With the Eagles on the ropes late, Farrior kayoed Philadelphia when he dropped back in coverage and picked off a McNabb pass and returned it into Philly territory.
Ferrior, also known to his teammates as "Potsie" (a nickname given to his parents partly due to his pot belly as a kid), was a leader in the best and worst of situations. He was mic’d up again that season during the AFC Championship game in a rematch with New England. Despite falling in a big hole early, Farrior remained upbeat and focused on the mission. The Steelers fell short that night, but seeing (and hearing) Farrior’s passion and leadership on the field was inspiring.
That leadership and optimism in adverse situations would be put to use in 2005. After staggering to a 7-5 start, Farrior led a defensive charge that spearheaded Pittsburgh to eight straight wins that concluded with a win in Super Bowl XL. Needing four straight wins to secure the final playoff spot, Pittsburgh outscored their foes 115-33. The defense allowed less than 10 points in three of those games. Flanked by Porter, Foote and Clark Haggans, it was the Steelers most talented linebacker core since the ’95 Blitzburg team consisting of Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Jason Gildon, and Chad Brown.
Farrior played possessed in the ’05 playoffs. He helped key Pittsburgh’s Wild Card win over Cincinnati with an interception off John Kitna in the second half. The next week against the heavily favored Colts, Farrior and Porter raced to the quarterback on seemingly every snap. They terrorized Peyton Manning, with Farrior collecting 2.5 sacks and Porter 1.5. They collaborated to sack Manning on a pivotal fourth down late to seemingly end the game the play before Ben Roethlisbger’s "Immaculate Tackle".
After the defense befuddled Denver in the AFC Championship, they held Seattle’s No.1 scoring offense to 10 points in Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl win in 26 years. Farrior and his defenses’ place in Steelers and NFL lore were secure. While he didn’t earn a Pro Bowl nod that year, he received a more valuable award from his teammates as the Steelers team Most Valuable Player.
Farrior and defense aged like fine wine for the rest of the decade. While many units are broken up after one or two Super Bowl runs, Pittsburgh defense was mostly kept in-tact throughout the 2000s.
Farrior, Deshea Townsend, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and others became the bedrock of the defenses success. It was a throwback to a different time, a time when group was given the opportunity to stay together, to learn each others strengths and weaknesses to become one, united unit. To grow together and see how great they could become. The result produced world championships.
Farrior and the defense reached the height of their powers in 2008. He helped mentor young linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons into major contributors on the team’s run to Super Bowl XLIII. His presence also helped in the evolution of James Harrison, who won the NFL’s Defense Player of the Year award in 2008.
Facing the NFL's hardest schedule in decades, the Steelers defense stepped to the challenge. They led the NFL in total defense and were in the discussion as one of the best defenses in league history. While not always in the limelight, Farrior was in the middle of it all, recording 133 total tackles en route to a second Pro Bowl bid along with fellow defenders Harrison and Troy Polamalu. The consummate team player, Farrior threw one of the key blocks that helped spring Harrison 100 yards to the end zone in the Steelers’ 27-23 win in Super Bowl XLIII.
As his career stretched into the teens, Farrior continued to post strong numbers while also continuing to stabilize the defense. He tallied over 100 tackles in both 2009 and 2010 as Pittsburgh advanced to Super Bowl XLV. Despite another solid season in 2011, the Steelers parted ways with one of the best leaders in franchise history on March 12, 2012.
The Steelers could use a player like James Farrior today. While Ryan Clark is busy making controversial statements on ESPN, Farrior is entrenched in his work with The James Farrior Foundation, which runs a variety of programs to help those in needs through all stages of life. It’s a shame less attention is shown on people like Farrior and the work that he is doing, but it’s probably how he prefers things.
Farrior was the 2000s version of LeVon Kirkland, who was the 90s version of Andy Russell. All three were leaders of dominant defenses, although they didn’t always get the glory. But their teammates and fan bases knew how important they were to the team’s success, especially in times like now, when they’re gone and new leaders need to fill the void.