Ex-Steelers OLB James Harrison signs one-year deal with Patriots
James Harrison didn't set out to leave the Steelers and join one of their biggest rivals, his agent said Tuesday.
In the end, however, Harrison wasn't given the choice.
Three days after the Steelers released their career leader in sacks and two-time team MVP, Harrison signed with the New England Patriots.
"Since (the Steelers) made a call to me about his release, from that time to this time, I have not spoken to them at all," Bill Parise said early Tuesday evening, less than an hour after the Patriots announced the signing of his client to a one-year contract.
While coach Mike Tomlin stood at a podium Tuesday afternoon during his weekly news conference and did little to quell speculation the Steelers were interested in bringing back the 39-year-old Harrison after he cleared waivers, Harrison already was en route to Foxborough, Mass., to meet with Patriots brass.
New England coach Bill Belichick first spoke with the 15-year veteran Monday.
"The Patriots are very methodical about how they do things and the way they make decisions," Parise said.
With a need at edge rusher, New England decided a marriage with Harrison made sense, particularly considering two of their projected opponents in the AFC playoffs are the Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs.
Harrison traditionally has thrived against tall offensive tackles, and Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is 6-foot-9. Harrison has 31⁄2 sacks in his past five games against Kansas City and their 6-7 left tackle, Eric Fisher. The most recent of those came Oct. 15 on the Chiefs' second-to-last snap of the game, helping to seal a Steelers road victory.
But that would be the final of his 801⁄2 sacks as a Steeler. Over 15 regular-season weeks with the Steelers in 2017, Harrison played 40 snaps. He was inactive for six of the team's 14 games before his release. He dressed but did not play in three others.
"His goal was to play football, not to sit somewhere," Parise said. "I think James was very, very agreeable, obviously, to being a part-time player. That wasn't an issue. It's just that the way it ended up, he wasn't playing at all."
Less than two months after Harrison and the Steelers agreed on a two-year, $3.5 million extension, the Steelers drafted T.J. Watt. Watt was given the starting right outside linebacker spot from Day 1 of training camp and did not relinquish it. And it was Anthony Chickillo — not Harrison — who emerged as Watt's backup.
"I think if we all had our druthers, we would rather James stayed in Pittsburgh and played in a role that he was led to believe he'd be playing in," Parise said. "We'd all rather have not moved anywhere, but that's not the way the NFL works."
So instead, the Steelers — and their fans — face the possibility that, come the AFC championship game late next month (the earliest the Steelers and Patriots could next meet), Harrison will be lined up and aiming for Ben Roethlisberger.
An even more difficult sight for Steelers fans to stomach might be the photo Harrison posted to his verified Instagram account not long after the signing became official: a selfie with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with the caption, "Finally... A teammate that's older than me!"
Harrison and the 40-year-old Brady are the NFL's oldest players on defense and offense, respectively.
The signing of Harrison was in character for a Patriots franchise that often acquires older veterans released by other teams at midseason. This year, they made similar moves by bringing in tight end Marcellus Bennett and receiver Kenny Britt.
Harrison is expected to play in Sunday's regular-season finale against the New York Jets.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.