It's the end of an era for the Steelers defense, as the team parted ways with veteran linebacker James Harrison Saturday.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
General manager Kevin Colbert has declared the Steelers are not a team in transition. Someone forgot to tell James Harrison that because the Steelers Saturday released the former NFL defensive player of the year.
The Steelers had been negotiating with Harrison the past week, trying to work out a pay cut on a 2013 salary of $6.57 million. The five-time Pro Bowl linebacker was willing to do so, his agent said, but not enough of one to satisfy the salary cap-strapped team.
"We could not get together financially at all," said Bill Parise, Harrison's agent who lives in Beaver County. "We certainly had agreed to take a paycut, but apparently there was a difference in how much of a pay cut we would take and how we would take it.
"It simply came down to money. It's all about the salary cap."
So the Steelers, who released three of their iconic long-term veterans a year ago, began the run-up to 2013 free agency that starts Tuesday by releasing one of their all-time best pass-rushing linebackers. Harrison led the Steelers in five of the past six years he has been their starter at right outside linebacker, including last season when he tied Lawrence Timmons for the lead with six. Harrison's 64 sacks rank fourth in Steelers history.
He will be 35 in two months and was limited for the first half of last season because of a knee injury. He was signed through 2014.
"James has been an integral part of our success during his years in Pittsburgh," Colbert said in the team's news release, "and has helped us win two Lombardi trophies during that time. We appreciate all of his efforts and wish him the best."
Harrison practically hand-delivered their most recent Vince Lombardi trophy when his 100-yard interception return for a touchdown just before halftime helped beat the Arizona Cardinals, 27-23, in Super Bowl XLIII. Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope, who has covered every Super Bowl, called it the greatest play in the game's history.
"James has played a major role in the success of this organization during his time in Pittsburgh," coach Mike Tomlin said in the team's news release. "I appreciate everything he has done in my six years as head coach and wish him nothing but the best in the future."
Parise said there were no ill feelings, and that both he and Harrison appreciated the opportunity he had with the Steelers.
"It's been a great run," Harrison wrote on Twitter Saturday, "but all good things must come to an end. Thank you Steelers Nation, I will miss you."
By cutting Harrison, the Steelers will create about $5 million in salary-cap room. They had been around the salary-cap amount, set at $123.9 million per team, but needed to create more room in order to issue tenders to some restricted free agents by Tuesday.
Harrison was not drafted after playing at Kent State, not far from his hometown of Akron, Ohio. He signed with the Steelers as a rookie free agent and was cut three times by them in 2002 and 2003 and once by the Baltimore Ravens before finally sticking with the Steelers in 2004. He also played one year in NFL Europe.
He was a special teams ace and their top backup on the outside, and the Steelers thought enough of him to release Joey Porter in 2007 and install Harrison as his replacement.
Harrison was named NFL defensive player of the year in 2008 when he set the franchise record with 16 sacks. He made five consecutive Pro Bowls between 2007 and 2011 and All-Pro three times.
His past two seasons were marked by injuries. He had two back surgeries early in 2011. He missed four games that season for other reasons, three to a broken orbital bone and one to a NFL suspension for his rough play, which prompted more than $100,000 in fines in his career.
A bothersome knee kept him out of virtually all spring drills last year, and then throughout training camp before he finally had surgery in August. He missed the first three games, but played in the rest of the 13, and his play improved as his knee grew stronger.
Parise believes teams will line up to sign Harrison, and he hopes one is an AFC North opponent of the Steelers.
"Why? Because I'd love to see him twice a year; I'm a Pittsburgh guy, remember."
Parise declined to say how much salary the Steelers wanted to cut and how much Harrison was willing to give them, but maintained there were no ill feelings.
"First and foremost, I think James understands it's a business. We're both hurt by this. You have to remember the Steelers are like a family, and any of these types of separations are hurtful.
"But James and I are very appreciative with the Steelers, the Rooneys and the opportunity they gave James. He had a very good run here. We really appreciate the love and we're sorry it's over.
"We're all smooth, we know what's going on, and we'll wait to see where we're going next."