In what appears to be a recurring offseason theme for one of the most respected franchises in the NFL, the Steelers find themselves embroiled in another off-the-field controversy involving one of their star players that has the potential to tear at the fiber of their defending AFC championship team.
Not only did Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison step us his verbal assault on commissioner Roger Goodell by calling him a "crook" and "devil" and making a classless remark about how he feels about Goodell in a men's magazine.
But, perhaps more significant, he criticized two of his teammates -- quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Rashard Mendenhall -- for their performance in the Super Bowl XLV loss to the Green Bay Packers, a game in which Harrison made only one tackle and was never much of a factor.
Harrison, who was fined $100,000 by Goodell for late hits in 2010, made the comments in the August issue of Men's Journal magazine, which goes on sale Friday.
Among his more venomous directives was when he said of the commissioner: "If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it. I hate him and will never respect him."
Bill Parise, Harrison's Pittsburgh-based agent, tried to downplay the severity of the comments Wednesday.
"A lot of it is bravado," Parise told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I think people have to be careful not to read that and think those statements are anything more than expressions of feelings, particularly in regard to the commissioner. The commissioner fined James $100,000 last year. What do you want him to say, he's my best friend? James is a tough individual, and that's the type of language he uses."
Parise denied a request to talk to Harrison.
Steelers President Art Rooney II issued a brief statement about Harrison: "I have not yet seen the article in Men's Journal nor have I spoken to James Harrison about his comments. We will discuss the situation at the appropriate time, when permitted, once the labor situation is resolved."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, "We are not commenting on any aspect of the story."
However, a former NFL team president, who did not want to be identified, said he wouldn't be surprised if Harrison were suspended because of the nature of what he said and his repeated violations with the league.
In the article, Harrison uses an anti-gay slur to describe Goodell, and also refers to him as "stupid," "a puppet" and "dictator."
If the Steelers had defeated the Packers in the Super Bowl, Harrison said he would have whispered in Goodell's ear during the trophy ceremony, "Why don't you quit and do something else, like start your own league in flag football?"
"I don't think we should get caught up in his cultural language," Parise said. "I think people will read that for what it is and move on. I don't think anyone truly believes James thinks the commissioner is the devil."
Harrison might have a hard time having his comments about Roethlisberger dismissed as easily.
Roethlisberger threw two interceptions against the Packers -- one that was returned 37 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter and another near midfield in the second quarter that led to Green Bay's third touchdown in a 31-25 defeat.
"Hey, at least throw a pick on their side of the field instead of asking the D to bail you out again," Harrison said about Roethlisberger. "Or hand the ball off and stop trying to act like Peyton Manning. You ain't that and you know it, man; you just get paid like he does."
Former Steelers running back Merrill Hoge, an ESPN studio analyst, said that Harrison phoned Roethlisberger and told him his comments were "twisted" by the writer of the article, Paul Solotaroff, and he did not intend to criticize his quarterback.
Hoge reported that Roethlisberger told Harrison he's taking him at his word and their relationship is "just fine."
Harrison, the 2008 NFL defensive player of the year, also criticized Mendenhall as a "fumble machine" for his costly fourth-quarter fumble that led to the final Packers touchdown.
Mendenhall responded to Harrison's comments when he wrote on Twitter, "I don't have a problem with what [Harrison] said because I know him." Mendenhall also wrote, "But I want you to check this out," and he included a link to NFL rushing stats that show he had only two fumbles in 324 rushing attempts in 2010. The only player with more attempts and fewer fumbles was Steven Jackson of St. Louis (one fumble in 330 rushes).
Such criticisms seem misplaced because Harrison, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, tied for fewest tackles among the defensive starters.
"He's just James!" safety Ryan Clark wrote on Twitter. "You know what you're getting." Later, Clark wrote: "Nobody has to leave. We will all be in Pittsburgh. Brothers disagree, brothers fight, call each other names. You're still family! ALWAYS!"
It is the second year in a row the Steelers have had one of their star players involved in an offseason controversy. Last year, Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of the regular season for his involvement in an alleged sexual assault incident with a female college student in Milledgeville, Ga. Before that, the team traded star wide receiver and Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes because of repeated incidents with the law.
Just last week, wide receiver Hines Ward was arrested in Atlanta for driving under the influence.
In the article, Parise said Harrison made some serious points about what Harrison thinks are the league's misguided attempts to increase safety. He explains how nonguaranteed contracts make players more likely to hit high, because in the short term, a torn knee ligament is more costly than a concussion.
And Harrison suggests the real way to prevent head injuries is to shorten the season to 14 games, start offseason workouts later and trim the length of training camp so "we're not bangin' heads so much in August; that's where the brain trauma comes from."
"We should not lose sight of the fact James made some very good points, and very viable points, about guaranteed contracts and the length of training camp," Parise said.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com . First Published July 14, 2011 4:00 AM