As the free agency season opened, a chapter in Steeler history came to a close. On Saturday, the Steelers released OLB James Harrison as a way to save money for what will surely be a challenging free agency frenzy over the next few weeks.
Releasing Harrison was probably a more difficult decision than most think. It’s true that Harrison appeared to play a bit of hard ball with the Steelers. He understood his value to the team with a lack of depth at linebacker and equally understood the end was near because of his age. He took a chance and stood his ground by refusing to take a pay cut or restructure. By restructuring, Harrison would have lost some money this season that would have been moved to a phantom year in his contract – money that he probably would have never have seen.
Harrison was due a base of $6.57 million and was $10.035 against the salary cap. Even with the options on the table, Harrison was expensive to keep. To restructure, the Steelers would have paid him a million in base salary and then add a year to the contract for the carry over of cash not spent in 2013. That move would have only saved about $3 million for the team. The bigger downside to that is that a restructure like that would have cost the team a potential $3 million in dead money for 2014. Figure in the bonus money for that year as well, and Harrison would have cost another $5 million plus – money that could be considered dead money at age 36 and an imminent release. It’s not sound business and is rolling the dice that Harrison would be worth the risk. 35 year old linebackers typically don’t have amazing seasons. However, with the lack of depth at linebacker, it probably made the Steelers think twice or more before releasing Debo.
Harrison is a special player to me. He is incredibly physical and his style of play harkens back to the days of ‘Mean’ Joe Green and Jack Lambert. He didn’t take shit from anyone and continually went after Commish Rodger Goodell for his interpretations of the rules regarding safety and his judge/jury/executioner style of handing down punishments. His tackle and sack totals (617/64.0) over 131 games are far from HOF numbers. It’s not like the league would let such a ‘villain’ have a bust in Canton anyways. But, you can do nothing but respect this man who went un-drafted and whose career was almost left for dead. Harrison will be missed – not just as a fan favorite, but also on the field with his teammates. Aging linebackers typically have poor seasons, but I believed that Harrison would have done very well this season for the Steelers. His intensity and intimidation cannot be matched by any linebacker currently on the roster, and it’s doubtful the draft will produce someone with the same attributes. But, as Mark Kaboly from the Trib tweeted following the news of Harrison’s release: ‘When age, injury, production and money all intersect, it’s just time to move on.’
I may be writing my farewell to one of the most bad ass Steelers to ever put on the uniform, but all is not completely lost. Harrison will more than likely test the market but could very well find himself unsigned by the time the draft has come and gone. There are plenty of linebackers on the market. However, many of the more infamous ones are over the age of 30, and teams may not be interested in picking up someone in the twilight of their career. If Harrison does not sign with a team – who will be looking to get at least $5 million a year on a short term – the Steelers could bring him back for one more year with a brand new contract. Would he be willing to take the pay cut then?
So long, Debo. Myself and the rest of NPC wish you the best of luck.
Contract info taken from SteelersDepot.com