James Harrison's Contract Situation Will Force Steelers to Release Aging LB

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistMarch 8, 2013

December 23, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (92) reacts during a time-out against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Heinz Field. The Cincinnati Bengals won 13-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Whether or not to release an aging veteran is a question that vexes teams every offseason, but few have better relationships with their team than James Harrison and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Harrison, who went undrafted out of college, developed into one of the league’s most fearsome linebackers in the Steel City. The team plucked him from obscurity, developed him and he rewarded the Steel City with a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008.

So when it came time for the Steelers to ask Harrison—who carries a $10.04 million cap charge in 2013—to restructure his deal, it seemed inevitable that the two sides would find an amenable ground. Harrison’s agent Bill Parise has made it clear that both sides were working toward getting a deal done.

“The Steelers have made it clear to me they want James to stay, and James and I have made it very clear that he wants to be a Steeler,” Parise said (per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Alan Robinson). “So we're working to try to make that happen.”

However, what’s been clear from the very beginning is Harrison’s unwillingness to actually take a pay cut. Talking about restructuring his current deal, which pays him a $6.57 million base salary, is one thing. That just involves some fun NFL cap fudging which gets Harrison his money while freeing up some room for the team.

Taking less money period, though? Out of the question.

 “Can we help the Steelers by restructuring James' contract? We're certainly willing to do that,” Parise said (per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s John Harris). “Do we need to take less money? I don't think so. Personally, I think he's a bargain.”

The message was clear: We’ll help, but only under mutually beneficial terms. Nearly a month has passed since Parise made his client’s position known, and as the free agency period looms large, the two sides are still at an impasse. Harrison is still willing to renegotiate and shuffle his money—but not to simply give it away.

According to USA Today’s Mike Garafolo, the lack of progress makes it highly likely that Pittsburgh will release Harrison in the coming days:

The sides have been speaking regularly and talked again on Friday, according to a person informed of the progress of negotiations. The person, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because the talks weren't to be discussed publicly, said there's been no progress in getting Harrison to agree to chop any portion of the $6.57 million base salary he's owed this season

If that comes as a shock, it shouldn’t. The Steelers organization has always done business in a conservative fashion. They do not and will not pay a player more than what he’s worth—regardless of the ultimate consequences. History is littered with players—especially linebackers—that Pittsburgh propped into stardom for years and then dumped the moment their cost outweighed their effectiveness. Harrison would join a list that includes former Pro Bowlers Joey Porter, James Farrior and Kendrell Bell, amongst others.  

Ask Mike Wallace how he feels about the way Pittsburgh operates. The 26-year-old receiver held out last season hoping to land a big new contract, only for the Steelers to give their submitted offer to fellow starter Antonio Brown. Now Wallace is a free agent and probably won’t be coming back next season barring a major surprise.

If the policy sounds callous, that’s because it is. But that’s the way the NFL’s contractual system operates. The Steelers have just learned over time how to work it better than any other team and it has paid massive dividends for the league's most consistently competitive franchise. 

If Harrison thinks he’s an exception, he’s very quickly learning that he’s wrong—and for good reason. Pittsburgh has a total cap figure of $120.13 million, per Spotrac, which would give the team a little more than $3 million to work with under the league’s $123.9 million salary cap. That leaves no one on the Steelers roster immune to a contract restructuring or pay cut—not even franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

As such, Harrison has little room to scoff. Although he's still an effective pass-rusher, Harrison showed noticeable signs of his advancing age last season. He recorded six sacks in 13 games played, which was his worst number since joining the regular starting lineup in 2007.

Advanced metrics bolster Harrison’s case but not all that much. Pro Football Focus, which measured the productivity of every 3-4 outside linebacker, recorded Harrison as being one of the best at his position in run-stop percentage and coverage snaps per reception. But his effectiveness took a downturn in the pass rush, as did just about every member of Pittsburgh’s defense.

Last season also saw Harrison miss multiple games due to injury for the second-consecutive year. It’s stereotypical considering Harrison’s otherwise stellar health record, but NFL players age in dogs years once they hit 30-plus.

In fact, it’s Harrison’s age that leaves open the possibility that Harrison’s time in the Steel City is not over.  Perhaps hitting the open market and seeing what other teams are willing to offer a declining linebacker on the precipice of turning 35 is exactly the type of wake-up call Harrison needs.

If not, the Steelers will be more than happy to move on and go about their journey at finding the next James Harrison. And if history tells us anything, it’s likely they’ll find him.