Tim Benz: Steelers players right to side with club on James Harrison's release
To hear Steelers players tell it, their team was being too nice.
They are right.
Since Saturday, the Steelers have been raked over the coals by a significant portion of their own fan base for being disrespectful to former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison.
He was cut Saturday, and many Steelers fans acted like the team had committed a mortal sin.
Now we know why they did it.
I bet a lot of Harrison loyalists will be singing a different tune as a result.
Steelers players spoke out about Harrison's release Wednesday. If you are expecting tearful tributes to a lost veteran leader, look elsewhere.
“He wanted to go,” Maurkice Pouncey said. “It's funny to read the stories. It's something he wanted to do. He needs to come out and admit that.
“If you don't want to be here, just come out and say it. Don't make it seem like it is the team's decision. You think the team wants to get rid of James Harrison?”
Or, as linebacker Bud Dupree tweeted: “Everybody acting like Debo a victim, y'all need to fall off a cliff or get the facts!”
Here is where I will blame the team, though. It made this situation way too hard on itself.
In the two opportunities Mike Tomlin had to speak since Harrison's release — postgame Sunday and during his usual Tuesday press conference — all he said was, “We needed the spot to activate Marcus Gilbert. There really isn't much more to it than that.”
Obviously there was.
Based on what Harrison's former teammates were saying, he was trying to push his own way out the door.
“I'll leave the discussions we had between James and I. I think that is appropriate,” Tomlin said.
That seemed to backfire with some die-hard Harrison fanboys.
It was intellectually dishonest to con yourself into believing that Harrison was somehow an innocent victim of the cold brutality of the NFL roster.
First of all, that's ignoring the fact that Harrison had barely played this year. That's ignoring the fact that the franchise brought him back to play after the Bengals deemed him washed up following 2013. That's also ignoring the fact that the Steelers would've made such a move months earlier if it was anyone of lesser repute.
Plus it ignores history. The club kept Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu on the team well beyond their primes largely out of respect for their past accomplishments.
Suddenly cutting Harrison — without prompting — with just two regular-season games remaining would've made no sense from a football perspective.
What if Dupree or T.J. Watt get hurt? What if Arthur Moats needs to move inside again? Why expose him to three potential playoff opponents? Instead, why not release a guy like Dan McCullers who has yet to serve a purpose this year?
For his part, Harrison did send out a tweet thanking “Steeler Nation.” But he hasn't made any other public comments since his release. If his former teammates are accurate, and Harrison really did ask to leave, then a lot of the negativity surrounding this situation would have been mitigated if the Steelers had just stated that they were letting Harrison go because they wanted to give him an opportunity to play elsewhere.
That wouldn't have been entirely true. They would've been doing it to avoid further headaches from an angry former All Pro. They would've been doing it to avoid more potential controversy during this year of tumult.
But that's how it could've been publicly stated.
Would Steelers fans have second-guessed that decision if Harrison strip-sacks Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC title game in Foxborough?
Of course. The fans would scream: “You let this guy just go to New England for free just because he wanted out?”
But that will happen anyway if Harrison comes back to haunt them. So why take the public relations hit in the process?
Given the soap opera Steelers fans have watched in 2017, maybe they would've understood the move and some even would've bought into the sympathy angle for Harrison's desire to leave.
Instead, a divide was created for a while.
After Pouncey's quotes yesterday, though, in a strange way some good may come from this latest chapter of “As the Steelers Turn.” This seems to have galvanized the locker room and put the players squarely behind the logo.
In the words of Pouncey to Harrison: “Bye. Have Fun!”
Yes. Indeed. An AFC title game rematch between the Steelers and New England sure would be “fun.”
Now more than ever.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.