Two Sides: the James Harrison Signing

When the Bengals finally nailed down a contract with former Steelers linebacker and Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison late last week, I began exchanging emails with my fellow Bobcat grad and Bengals Blog compatriot, Adam Flango. A video producer for CBS Sports, Flango is a die-hard Steelers fan. Being a hard-core Bengals fan myself, we both deemed ourselves intelligent enough to discuss our thoughts on the Harrison signing. Whether we were ultimately correct in assuming this is an entirely separate matter.

Justin: I’m in favor of this signing for the Bengals, though not necessarily for any statistical reasons. Harrison has had injury issues in recent years, he’s switching from a rush end in a 3-4 base to an outside spot in a 4-3, and unless the Bengals plan to use him in the nickel package, he’ll probably only play 20-30 snaps a game. BUT, this is exactly the type of player the Bengals NEVER have. He’s been a key part of a winning, Super Bowl champion franchise for years. He’s nasty, fearless, and a little dirty. He’s the exact opposite of Rey Maualuga. So aside from how I feel about the team from a fandom point of view, I think it’s a good football signing, regardless of how that reflects on the stat sheet. I think his mere presence will have the biggest positive impact.

So first, ignoring your Steelers fandom, what are your thoughts on the signing as someone who has watched Harrison closely for years and followed the Bengals last season?

Adam: I will do my best to ignore my Steelers fandom as I write this while wearing my No. 92 Steelers jersey. But from a purely football standpoint, I am not thrilled about this move for Cincinnati. Harrison has always been a player that has made his bones with speed and leverage on the outside, using his size (he’s listed at 6-feet but is probably closer to 5-foot-10) as a positive. But when someone like Harrison loses a few steps of speed, suddenly his leverage turns into a detriment. I’ll ignore statistics for the time being and just focus on what I saw from him last year. Harrison was much slower than in previous seasons and rarely flashed the nastiness that the Bengals seem to covet. But while he may still have the reputation of being nasty, fearless, and an absolutely dirty (“a little” is far too kind), teams did not seem to fear him last year like they once did. He rarely faced double teams because teams didn’t need to. He was entirely blockable with one guy. And the Steelers, perhaps more than any other team, seem to know when their players have nothing left in the tank. James Farrior and Hines Ward did not retire immediately after last year. They were released, no one wanted them, then they retired. I thought that was going to be the path for James Harrison but I guess the Bengals think he has something left in the tank. I’m just not so sure that there is. (And I haven’t even touched on the fact that he is playing a completely new position—especially if they expect him to play with his hand on the ground.)

And as far as presence goes, the Steelers were a mess in the locker room last year, particularly among the defensive players. Now I was not in the locker room or covering the team, but from everything I’ve read, the Steelers were looking for someone to step up as a leader defensively and Harrison definitely did not do it. So I’m not sold on his presence being a positive impact.

Maybe the Bengals are just looking for someone to be a situational pass rusher and maybe the team got him for a discounted deal because he was pissed at the Steelers for releasing him and wanted to go to any team in the division.

Now without my pointed pessimism about the move clouding your judgment, what are your honest expectations for James Harrison this season?

Justin: I don’t disagree with anything you’ve offered. I guess I’m slightly less pessimistic about those results. In terms of honest expectations? Stat wise: 30-40 (legit) solo tackles, 3-5 sacks, 2-3 turnovers (forced and/or recovered). So as we both hinted at—not much. Again, unless Mike Zimmer plans to overhaul the defensive gameplan in some way to gear it towards Harrison (which I don’t foresee), he’ll really only be on the field for a 35-50 percent of the defensive snaps. He’ll play strong-side backer in the base formation, where he should be an asset against the run, and he’ll get to rush the QB a handful of times each game. I don’t see Zimmer playing Harrison with his hand on the ground. That’s not Zim’s style. Maybe randomly to show the offense a different look (Harrison and Michael Johnson on the ends, with Carlos Dunlap/Wallace Gilberry moving inside next to Geno Atkins), but I’d be shocked if it happened with any regularity. And no, I don’t see him playing nickel, because as you alluded to, he can’t cover. (Though he can’t be any worse than Maualuga, either.)

But just as the Steelers have a penchant for letting guys go at the right time, the Bengals—Mike Zimmer, really—have had success resurrecting castoffs, journeyman, head cases, and guys that were seemingly washed up. Pacman Jones had arguably his best year in the league last season. Terrence Newman played well. Reggie Nelson has developed into a very solid safety. Vontaze Burfict. Tank Johnson. Hell, Chris Crocker somehow managed to play high-volume, quality snaps for the majority of last season, and I’m not sure he could cover me (which is a HUGE insult). Maybe Zim could do the same for Harrison.

Ultimately, it’s a low risk signing (AKA the Mike Brown specialty package). If he sucks, they have him for two years maximum at a cheap price. If he does anything productive/beneficial, it’s gravy for the Bengals and Brown gets to pretend he’s a genius. And yeah, I’m sure part of it was the Bengals trying to get under Pittsburgh’s skin a bit, and vice versa; the only other team with any documented interest in Harrison was the Ravens, so I’m sure he wanted to remain in the AFC North as well.

Is that the same sense you get, that he wants to stick it to the Steelers? And do you have any predictions for how he’ll produce?

Adam: Well it pleases me to see that your expectations are realistic, but I worry that you are thinking far more pragmatically than most Bengals fans. But I think we both agree, then, that from a statistical standpoint, Harrison’s contribution is going to essentially be replacement-level, maybe just a tick above. But I’d argue that most average outside linebackers could put up the types of numbers you suggested. (Namely because Manny Lawson gave the Bengals almost that level of production, but with better coverage.) So as far as predictions go, I guess I’m in the same camp as you. I think that Zimmer will be able to coax some production out of him still, just not anywhere close to his old standard.

The more I think about Harrison’s motivations for signing in Cincinnati, the less I am inclined to believe that Harrison wants to stick it to the Steelers. Sure, there may be a tiny bit of bad blood, but I don’t think Harrison does, or should, harbor resentment for the franchise. The team and the whole city stuck behind him even when he became arguably the face of illegal hits in the NFL. He seems spiteful when it comes to the league, but not to Pittsburgh or the Steelers.

I think the reason that only divisional teams were interested is because they are the only ones that would really benefit from signing him. Like we already mentioned, his on-field production is not going to be that dramatic. So if you’re going to have a use for James Harrison at this point, it is going to be for some sort of psychological advantage. I think it’s more of the Bengals trying to stick it to the Steelers. I can see Mike Brown lounging by a fireplace and thinking that he pulled a fast one on his division rival, that the Bengals have somehow stolen some of the Steelers’ mojo. That has to be at least part of the reason, because in all likelihood, you could have found a cheaper alternative to filling the strong-side LB role.

But honestly, the most interesting aspect of this deal is that we get to see how fans react when he first puts on that Bengals uniform. Harrison is one of the ultimate love him when he plays on your team, hate him when he plays against your team, much in the same way that Hines Ward was. But rarely do we get so see these kinds of situations play out. So as a Bengals fan, are you going to feel icky rooting for James Harrison? Are you and your compatriots going to be able to fully support him after ardently opposing everything that he represented for years?

Justin: I assume Harrison will receive quite the warm welcome from fans. Just look back at how the majority of people responded to the Terrell Owens signing a few seasons ago. Plus, it’s not as if Bengals fans have any reason to let pride get in our way.

Personally, as a fan of the Men in Stripes myself, I was rather surprised with how quickly I talked myself into the move. (Hines Ward, however, would have been another story.) Unfortunately, this is also a result of the move being as close to a “big free-agent signing” as one can expect the club to make. The Bengals don’t spend cash on the open market. So aside from the castoffs and felonious screw-ups, past-their-prime household names are as good as it gets for us. There’s some truth to the old Mark Twain quote about everything coming to Cincinnati ten years late, particularly in reference to overgrown men in shoulder pads.

But ultimately, I think I like the idea of someone with Harrison’s sentimentality wearing a Bengals uniform. I certainly don’t condone him purposefully trying to knock anyone’s head off, but if being in the huddle or on the sideline or in the locker room can help (or scare) some of his teammates into racheting up the intensity, that’s enough. Maybe I’m overselling that particular impact, but at least that potential is there. And I have to admit, I’m excited to see how he performs in those two primetime matchups with Pittsburgh.

You’re a Steelers fan. Will you be at all scared to go against Harrison when the time comes? And either way, will it be tough to see him in orange and black?

Adam: It’s odd, because more than any other fans, Steelers fans understand what type of punishment he is capable of inflicting. So I’m not afraid of him producing against us—he may put up a sack or two but I don’t think he is capable of those game-altering performances that were once his trademark. Oddly enough, however, I am sort of worried that his recklessness may result in one of our players getting hurt. (This seems like a weird thing to be worried about, namely because I have never been worried about an opposing player hurting one of my team’s players.) Did Bengals fans fear this each time their team played the Steelers? I hope not because it is decidedly unpleasant.

Now I do not think that he is that vindictive of a person to purposely try to injure someone. It’s just that his style is such that he always wants to make the biggest impact physically possible when he tackles someone. He may not be able to inflict that impact as much anymore, and the league’s ever-tightening ‘player safety’ rules have curtailed his presence some, but the threat is still there.

It’s going to be strange to see him in something other than black and gold because this rarely, if ever, happens to the Steelers. The most similar comparison would be when Joey Porter was released after the 2006 season and went to the Dolphins. I was disappointed when J-Peezy left, sure. I had his jersey, which probably had something to do with it. (Coincidentally, I have a Harrison jersey as well.) But I did not resent him for it. And I’m confident I’ll feel the same way about Harrison. He helped us win two Super Bowls and gave me one of the most thrilling sports moments of my life. So I can look past switching teams and choosing to sign with a divisional foe. Winning cures everything and James Harrison sure did help us win.

Justin: Umm…did you seriously just ask me if Bengals fans were worried about players being injured while playing the Steelers. DID YOU SERIOUSLY JUST ASK ME THAT?!?!?

Screw you, man.

Anyways, I agree with your point. Regardless of Harrison leaving or even how productive he is in Cincinnati, it doesn’t change all the amazing things he did for Pittsburgh. I suppose Bengals fans will feel similar as well. If he’s despised here, it will be because he doesn’t produce or is clearly washed up, not because he was once a Steeler. Either way, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

But admit it, this had to sting just a little bit, right?

Adam: LEAVE KIMO ALONE! HE DIDN’T MEAN TO! HE CRIED AFTER THE PLAY! (But seriously, for anyone still believing that Kimo did that one purpose, it’s time to move on. Palmer’s knee exploding was the result of a fat guy falling and rolling on the ground, not some vicious scheme to take him down.)

But that is still a completely bizarre concept to me. So you really watch games and, in the back of your mind, fret that at any given time A.J Green’s knee might buckle or Geno Atkins might tear a tricep or something? That has to be an awful way to enjoy a football game. I mean, the Steelers have had their fair share of injuries, particularly when it comes to offensive linemen, but even then I don’t actively worry about the possibility of injury.

And you’re right. That tweet wasn’t quite a bee sting or a paper wasp welt, but it did leave a tiny mark. But this helped a little.

This may seem like a difficult, if not impossible, concept for Bengals fans, but I have learned to trust Kevin Colbert’s evaluation of the roster. There are some moves I’ll never understand (like why Ryan Mundy ever walked on the field, for instance) but with the Harrison move, I’ll trust the Steelers.

Here’s (kind of) hoping that you (almost) find that comfort some day soon, Bengals fans.

Justin: I wouldn’t say Bengals fans watch games expecting an injury. But for a long time, we did just assume that the worst was bound to happen. I think over the course of the past few seasons, that tide has slowly begun to shift.

And thank you. Your lukewarm support is sort of appreciated.


If you want to go back and read Flango’s spot-on prediction for the Bengals first-round draft pick—as well as his thoughts on the remainder of the team’s selections—check out his draft preview from earlier this week.

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