James Harrison (aka Silverback - a nickname Harrison received due to having the freakish strength of a Silverback Gorilla) of the Pittsburgh Steelers was last year's rightful NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Recently I've seen some articles claiming that DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys was somehow robbed of this honor. Admittedly, it was a close vote. But there are clear and obvious reasons that Harrison got the nod, the sixth Pittsburgh Steeler to win the award.
The award goes to the player who was the most "outstanding" defensive player in the league.
When you look at Harrison's season in detail, you'll see that he changed and affected games more often and more significantly than did Ware.
On the surface, a quick comparison of their stats shows:
Passes Defensed: 3
Forced Fumbles: 7
NFL Defensive Player of the Week Award in 2008: 2
Passes Defensed: 2
Forced Fumbles: 6
NFL Defensive Player of the Week Award in 2008: 1
Of the seven statistical categories, Harrison was better in six. That should be convincing enough. Those who believe the NFL DPOY Award should be a relative sack contest felt robbed when Ware didn't get the award.
Sacks can be critical in the course of a game. But are they more critical than forcing a turnover or a player directly putting points on the board? Interceptions, forced fumbles, and safeties have more of a direct impact on the game than sacks typically do.
Silverback had one more forced fumble than Ware, an interception, and a safety. Ware logged no interceptions or safeties.
Harrison's forced fumbles, interceptions and safeties led to 18 points for Pittsburgh and occurred typically at very critical junctures of games.
- In week one, Harrison sacked Houston's Matt Schaub with Woodley recovering the ball at Houston's 30. The Steelers capitalized scoring a field goal. Pittsburgh won handily 38-17.
- In week four, Harrison was a complete monster against the Ravens, logging 10 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the third quarter that was scooped up and returned by Woodley for a touchdown. At that critical juncture, Pittsburgh trailed Baltimore 13-10. The touchdown put Pittsburgh up 17-13 at the time. In a game that went to overtime, the forced fumble and score was critical to the win (final score 20-23).
- Harrison stepped up big again in Week 11 vs. San Diego. In the second quarter, he sacked Rivers in the end zone (who fumbled). The ball was picked up by McNeill, who was subsequently tackled by Harrison for a two-point safety. Later in the second quarter, Harrison intercepted Rivers, and returned it 33 yards into San Diego territory, leading to a field goal. Those five points were critical in Pittsburgh's 11-10 victory over the Bolts.
- Against the Patriots in week 13, Harrison lodged another two forced fumbles, one of which led to a field goal. Both came in the pivotal third quarter changing a game tied at 10-10 into a 33-10 rout of the Patriots.
- Harrison's final forced fumble came in week 14 against Ware's Cowboys in the second quarter. The forced fumble led to no points. Pittsburgh went on to win the game 20-13.
Pittsburgh won each of these games, and Harrison's play had direct impact on the Steelers eventually winning those contests, at times turning the games from losses into leads, or turning a tie into a blow-out, or sealing a victory..
Ware's forced fumbles (again he had no safeties or interceptions) led to fourteen points for Dallas. These plays had significantly less impact on game outcomes as compared to Harrison's. Only two times did Ware's forced fumbles lead directly to points, and in both games the Cowboys lost:
- Ware's first forced fumble came in week one against Cleveland, which was recovered by Cleveland (no points of turnover). Dallas won 28-10.
- Ware didn't log another forced fumble until week nine, when he sacked and stripped Eli Manning of the Giants, ball recovered by James. Dallas then drove the ball 75 yards for a TD. Dallas lost the game 35-14.
- In week 15, Ware reappeared with two forced fumbles against the Giants. In both instances though, the Giants recovered the forced fumble, so the Cowboys got no points off turnover. However, Dallas still won 20-8.
- In week 16, Ware lodged another two forced fumbles. In the first quarter, Ware sacked Flacco, which led to a Dallas touchdown. He sacked Flacco again in the third quarter, but Baltimore recovered and went on to win the game in an embarrassing final game in Texas Stadium, 33-24.
Overall in games where Ware created a turnover, the Cowboys were only 2-2. Harrison was a literal game changer. Ware's impact, whily incredibly impressive, didn't have the game changing effects that Harrison's plays did.
Some may argue that Harrison had a better supporting defensive cast, with LaMarr Woodley lining up opposite Harrison. There's no question the Steelers defense was an all-around amazing unit last year—maybe one of the best in history.
The Cowboys, however, were also good on defense. The Cowboys finished the season ranked eighth in the NFL. Ware had plenty of support as well.
In addition, a look at Harrison's previous season in 2007 - his first as a starter - shows 2008 was no fluke. Lamar Woodley was a rookie and played only in spot-duty situations in a severely limited fashion. Yet in 2007, Harrison had 98 tackles (compared to 101 in 2008), seven forced fumbles (same as 2008), one interception (same as 2008), three passes defensed (same as 2008) and 8.5 sacks. The numbers are uncanilly similar.
Woodley's addition this season as a full-time starter led to an increase in Harrison's sacks, no question. Harrison's consistency over the past two seasons, however, lays to rest the argument. It was the man, not the unit.
However you look at it, the "most outstanding" defensive player in the NFL last year was James Harrison—with little argument. Harrison was a literal game changer and a disruptive, explosive force who led directly and indirectly to putting points on the board and securing Steelers victories. Ware had an incredible season in logging 20 sacks, but didn't have nearly the impact on the scoreboard that James did.
The body of work that Harrison put together, however, was a complete masterpiece all around.