In what was surely one of the more difficult moves in his tenure as head coach, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, along with general manager Kevin Colbert, announced that the team has released former All-Pro outside linebacker James Harrison. The two parties were previously in discussions about reducing his salary cap hit.
James Harrison was the engine that drove the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers defense all the way to the organization’s record sixth Super Bowl victory at the end of that season. He was named Defensive Player of the Year after recording 101 tackles, a team record 16 sacks, seven forced fumbles, an interception, and a safety during the regular season.
As an encore, he intercepted Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner at the goal line as time was running out in the first half of Super Bowl XLIII, returning it 100 yards for the touchdown as time expired. The play remains the longest interception return in Super Bowl history.
Harrison was originally brought into the league by the Steelers as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State, a raw and undersized project that, in the team’s eyes, took years to reach his potential. He bounced around between the Steelers, the Ravens, and even NFL Europe before making it onto the team’s 53-man roster in 2004, but he would not become a full-time starter until 2007, when Tomlin took over for Bill Cowher. Harrison was already 29 by that point.
That season, Tomlin made the gutsy decision to release Joey Porter, the Pro Bowl linebacker to whom Harrison served apprenticeship. This is not a decision that he would have made if he didn’t believe in Harrison’s abilities. That season, he recorded 98 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and forced seven fumbles, in addition to registering an interception, en route to his first of five straight Pro Bowl appearances.
Harrison had perhaps his second-best season in 2010 when the Steelers lost to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. That year, he recorded an even 100 tackles, 10.5 sacks, five passes defensed, two interceptions, and six forced fumbles, yet it was his teammate, Troy Polamalu, who took Defensive Player of the Year honors that year. It was, however, his third All-Pro team.
He has been hampered by injury the past two seasons, which has slowed his production. In 24 games over the last two years, he has just 15 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Harrison, who will be 35 when the 2013 season begins, was scheduled to make $6.57 million this season and $7.575 million in 2014. The team attempted to get Harrison to agree to a pay cut, as nose tackle Casey Hampton did the year before, to maintain his roster spot, but he evidently refused to do so. The Steelers clear $5.105 million in salary cap space with his release in a move that surely nobody truly wanted to make.
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