Cook: Harrison's exit from Steelers wrong, avoidable

March 10, 2013
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I'm a guy who seldom has more than two quarters in his pocket so I'm hardly qualified to comment on high-financial matters. But since when has that stopped me? I don't pretend to understand the staggering numbers that were in linebacker James Harrison's contract or the impact they had on the Steelers' fragile salary-cap situation.

But I do know it's flat wrong for the team to let him go. He would have helped the Steelers compete for a Super Bowl next season. You keep guys like that. You don't send them away.

I know all the reasons the Steelers felt they had to release Harrison Saturday. He turns 35 May 4. He had knee surgery last summer. Apparently, he wasn't interested in taking a pay cut the way veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton did last summer. That pay-cut thing was the deal-breaker.

I also know the Steelers seldom make a mistake when they allow a star player to leave. They blew it when they let cornerback Rod Woodson, then 31, go after the 1996 season. Dan Rooney still says it's one of his big regrets as Steelers owner. Woodson played great football for seven more years with the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders, helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl after the 2000 season and made it to the Hall of Fame. But who else? What other player did the Steelers release prematurely?

All that doesn't mean the Steelers didn't botch the Harrison decision. He isn't your typical older player. The team doesn't have anyone to replace him. And, contrary to much speculation, the Steelers are built to win now and will be for as long as Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback. They aren't rebuilding. They don't need to get younger. They need Harrison.

Harrison missed the first three games last season after knee surgery during training camp. He struggled for a long time after coming back but was a terror again by the end of the season. He said he never had a chance to rehab his knee and was more focused on just being able to play week to week. He predicted that an offseason of training would make him good as new. No one on the Steelers works harder than Harrison. There's no doubt he'll be ready to have a big season by the time July gets here.

Sadly, for both the Steelers and Harrison, it won't be with the Steelers.

Word is Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and linebackers coach Keith Butler wanted Harrison back. This wasn't like last offseason when the coaches decided Hines Ward and James Farrior no longer could play. The feeling in the coaches' room is Harrison still has plenty left. The Steelers defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season despite getting less than the usual mayhem from Harrison and oft-injured stars LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu. Jason Worilds should move into the lineup now that Harrison is gone, but he's no Harrison. He can rush the passer just fine. He had five sacks and eight quarterback hurries last season, mostly as a backup to Harrison or Woodley. But he's not exactly stout in the run game. He's a significant drop-off from Harrison.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert insists the team isn't rebuilding. I believe him, although cutting Harrison screams otherwise. As former Steelers coach Bill Cowher always said, "There's a fine line in this business between winning and losing." The Steelers proved that again last season. If Roethlisberger didn't throw critical interceptions against Dallas and Cincinnati, the Steelers probably would have made the playoffs. If wide receiver Antonio Brown didn't lose key fumbles against Oakland and Dallas, they probably would have finished 10-6 instead of 8-8. There are a handful of other examples I could have cited. It's enough to make me believe that, with Harrison ready to go next season and Woodley and Polamalu staying healthy, there's no reason the team couldn't compete in the AFC North Division and be a Super Bowl contender.

I go back to Roethlisberger. The Steelers should never be counted out of any game or season as long as he's the quarterback. That's why all the draft talk that has the team taking a quarterback in an early round is nonsense. Colbert and Tomlin need to find playmakers to put around Roethlisberger to give him the best chance to be successful. Now isn't the time to be worrying about his replacement. It's the time to get him some help.

Now, suddenly, outside linebacker has become another area of great need.

As hard as it is to imagine the Harrison release turning out well for the Steelers, there is no guarantee it will work out well for Harrison, either. He said all along he wanted to stay here, but his stance in the contract talks said otherwise. Even if he gets the same money he was due to make with the Steelers, he will have to start over with a new team playing a new defensive system. That's never easy. I'm sure Harrison eventually will fit in and be comfortable in another team's uniform, but it's going to take a long time for the rest of us to get used to it.

It really is sad, isn't it?

Tomlin and the Steelers wanted to keep Harrison. Harrison wanted to stay here. I can't believe their differences were irreconcilable.

This is one divorce that didn't have to happen.