Kovacevic: Harrison's exit comes with a cost

Steelers linebacker James Harrison plays against the Browns in December 2012 at Heinz Field.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison plays against the Browns in December 2012 at Heinz Field.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 11:32 p.m.

The first thought upon the Steelers' seismic release of James Harrison, a few minutes past noon Saturday, had nothing to do with whether it was the right move.

Of course it was.

Harrison, stubborn and strong-willed as ever, left Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin no choice. He could have taken a reasonable pay cut for a 35-year-old with a bad back, a bum knee and the overbearing $14 million he was due the next two seasons.

He didn't, and he's gone.

But first thought?

Not in this corner, sorry. My own had nothing to do with the dollars, decimal points or depth charts. Rather, it had to do with the sheer impact of it all. And it hit like a forearm to Tom Brady's blind side.

It had to do with the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, the five Pro Bowls and the two championship rings.

It had to do with six years of starting with 66 12 sacks, 29 forced fumbles, a 62-33 record for the team and countless rattled teeth. Before and after hits.

It had to do with the greatest play any of us will witness in a Super Bowl, the 100-yard tour de force interception of Kurt Warner that should rank even above Santonio Holmes' catch for that sixth Lombardi.

It had to do with body-slamming that Browns fan in Cleveland.

It had to do with that menacing glare somehow penetrating the darkest of visors, with brandishing those guns on the cover of Men's Journal, with being arrested for assaulting his girlfriend in 2008 before charges were dropped, with spitting out some of the harshest public vitriol between a player and a sitting commissioner, with using a homophobic slur as part of that vitriol, with barking “Friday!” when a reporter dared approach some other day ending in Y, with that wild unpredictability that kept everyone — and I mean everyone, including his closest teammates — constantly on edge.

It had to do with being so set on his belligerent style of play that he was willing — no, eager — to take on the entire establishment of football and pay close to a quarter-million dollars in fines to keep at it.

That's impact.

That's real.

Let's not pretend that Harrison and all he's represented, for better or worse, for remarkable or utterly reprehensible, isn't an enormous part of what the Steelers long have been about. Especially on defense.

This is the franchise whose iconic player's accepted first name was “Mean.” It's been the home to Jack Lambert's toothless growl, to Mel Blount's crushing hits that forced rule changes, to a string of over-the-edge outside linebackers from Greg Lloyd to Joey Porter to Harrison, perhaps the most feared of all.

Where will that come from, that sense that the Steelers are not only out to get your quarterback but also to break him into shish kabob-sized bits, now or in the foreseeable future?

From Jason Worilds?

Please. It's true he can squirt through the line for the occasional sack. But he can't stay on the field, he gets steamrollered on the run, and he'll strike as much terror into the heart of opponents as the long snapper.

From LaMarr Woodley?

The guy who was so banged up, so out of shape, that the Cowboys this past season assigned a 5-foot-9 running back to rub him out?

From Lawrence Timmons?

He's coming off a career year, but that's largely because he's finally been left alone on the inside.

From the defensive ends?

Because they combined for, um, nine sacks and six tackles for losses over 16 games?

From Manti Te'o or some other mythical creature to be concocted?

Look, I'll say it again: The Steelers did the right thing. Harrison wasn't the same player, even with a late-season surge. And by every account, they were authentic in their wish -- and their contractual offers -- to keep him in the uniform in which he should have retired.

In this space 11 days ago, I wrote that it would be great to have him back at the right price. Colbert and Tomlin evidently felt the same, judging by the talks they had with Bill Parise, Harrison's agent. But, as I wrote then of Harrison, “If he wants to be stubborn, well, then we will see another big cutdown.”

He was, and we did.

Ideally, the Steelers will use the $5.1 million in cap savings to land a receiver or running back, maybe even Steven Jackson. They might cut ties with Casey Hampton, too, and really spend on free agents. Worilds might show up at Latrobe ready to embrace his first real opportunity. Woodley might get back to performing like a star instead of promoting himself that way.

But there are no Harrisons on the horizon. They don't come along often.

And his kind is nothing less than vital for this franchise.

Let's not pretend otherwise.

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