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Steelers release five-time Pro Bowler Harrison

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 12:18 p.m.
Tribune-Review
The Steelers released five-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison after being unable to convince one of their longtime stars to take a substantial pay cut.
Christopher Horner
Steelers linebacker James Harrison (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

The first three times the Steelers cut James Harrison, he was determined to prove them wrong. He is again, following the fourth and final release by the team he never sought to leave.

Harrison was equally saddened and motivated Saturday when the Steelers continued a two-year purge of elite players by releasing the five-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker.

“It's been a great run but all good things come to an end,” Harrison posted on Twitter.

Unlike the Steelers' decision to part ways last year with James Farrior, Hines Ward and Aaron Smith, this move was driven by money rather than performance. They must be in compliance with the $123 million salary cap by Tuesday, and cutting Harrison freed up $5.1 million of cap space they'll need as they start re-signing restricted free agents.

Harrison's agent, Bill Parise, spent the week trying to negotiate a restructured contract in which Harrison would cut his salaries of $6.57 million in 2013 and $7.575 in 2014. But Harrison wanted more guaranteed money than the Steelers were willing to pay a player whose left knee injury affected his play for at least half of last season, Parise said.

“They didn't feel like it was too big a cut, but we did,” he said. “We tried to do what we could to work through that, but we were unsuccessful.”

Still, he added, “There was no reason for this to go this way. I don't know if they were cap-strapped or it's the direction (they're going). I have no idea what motivated this.”

General manager Kevin Colbert offered a hint in mid-January when he said, “You make decisions to sustain or decisions to change. This year we have to make decisions to change.”

On Saturday, Colbert said, “James has been an integral part of our success during his years in Pittsburgh and has helped us win two Lombardi trophies during that time. We appreciate all his efforts and wish him the best.”

While the Steelers saved money, it came at a potential cost.

For one of the few times in their history, the Steelers may watch one of their signature players shift to a division rival, and with some high-performance days left in him, much like Rod Woodson did. Harrison professes to be healthier than he has been in years, and the division rival Ravens and Browns are possible landing spots.

A team whose locker room leadership is being questioned from within loses a player whose scary glare and vitriolic words could be motivational. For now, the NFL's reigning top-ranked defense is left with Jason Worilds, a part-timer with 10 career sacks, and Chris Carter at a position where Harrison has been an offense-altering force since 2007.

Harrison's teammates, current and past, quickly went to Twitter to praise him.

Ward called him “one special player.” Maurkice Pouncey tweeted: “Six words for (James Harrison): you will be missed in Pittsburgh.”

“He was a great teammate and great competitor and he will be missed,” teammate Jonathan Dwyer said.

Parise expects Harrison to sign a multiyear contract soon with another team, even though Harrison's quarterback pressures have dropped from 57 to 40 to 28 over the past three seasons.

“We feel strongly that we've got three good years left, maybe four,” Parise said. “We definitely have a couple of things in mind where we could go to and definitely help the team. We'd love to talk to them, and we'll talk to others as well.”

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is likely to miss him most. The Steelers cut Harrison three times after he went undrafted out of Kent State, but his perseverance, toughness and drive helped him become one of the NFL's best defensive players of the last quarter-century.

Harrison had 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles during his Defensive Player of the Year season of 2008, which he ended with his memorable 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against Arizona in the Super Bowl.

Harrison's play often was more than nasty. He was fined more than $100,000 for various transgressions, and he was the first player suspended for violating the league's enhanced player safety rules.

“James is very sad about this,” Parise said.

Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton and Brandon Weeden probably aren't.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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