On the Steelers: Harrison release could be a sign of things to come

March 10, 2013
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers cut James Harrison on Saturday even though he had two years left on his contract. • Of the major sports, only in football does something like this regularly happen. In baseball, hockey and basketball, contracts are guaranteed. In football, they are not. A team can cut a player at any time and not owe him a dime in most situations.

Is it fair? Yes, actually, because that is the system in the NFL and the players know it. Players sign contracts knowing that the only money that is guaranteed is the guaranteed money, really the signing bonuses they get up front, which can be so high that they also guarantee the first few years of the roster bonuses and salaries stipulated in their contract as well.

Harrison was due $6.57 million this year and $7,575,000 in 2014. When he signed his six-year, $51.75 million contract in April of 2009, he had to know that while it stipulated he was under contract through 2014 that it was entirely possible he would not see the final two years when he was 35 and 36 years old.

Harrison still wants to play, and the Steelers believed he could still be an asset to them, which is why they were trying to negotiate to keep him last week. It came down to this: How low would Harrison go before he refused to play for that number? We don't know how low, but it wasn't low enough and the Steelers shaved roughly $5 million from their salary cap for 2013 by releasing him. Another team will undoubtedly sign him to a one-year contract, but for how much? He might make a little more than what the Steelers offered him in a reduction, but would that be enough to make up for joining another team and learning another defense?

There are downsides for the Steelers as well. They do not have confidence in Jason Worilds or Chris Carter that either can adequately replace Harrison, although one or both might surprise them now that they will get that chance. The move will not go over big in a locker room that some players have proclaimed already was fractured in 2012.

But, as they say, it's a business. Casey Hampton took a paycut to stay last season. Jerome Bettis twice took paycuts to stay and it worked out pretty good for him. Harrison was willing to take some kind of paycut, but it just wasn't enough.

Where does Worilds factor in?

Somewhat lost in the discussions about Harrison is the plight of Worilds.

The Steelers drafted Worilds in the second round in 2010, a defensive end at Virginia Tech that they projected as a 3-4 outside linebacker. It is a tactic they have used so many times through the years. On that day three years ago, some people involved in the Steelers draft expected them to choose linebacker Sean Lee of Penn State with their second pick. They were surprised when they took Worilds instead, and there are suspicions that Mike Tomlin stepped in and expressed his interest in Worilds over Lee.

There may be reasons why Worilds has made little impact in his three seasons, including a wrist injury last year and playing behind Pro Bowl players Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. But, in the normal course of events, the Steelers would let Harrison go and turn to Worilds, just as they let Joey Porter go in 2007 and turned to Harrison.

They were pursuing the soon-to-be-35-year-old Harrison to play one more season, which showed they were not confident Worilds can do the job. This time next year, Worilds will be an unrestricted free agent.