PITTSBURGH — The Steelers seemed to be grasping at straws when they asked James Harrison to play again back in September.
He was a 36-year-old linebacker who had announced his retirement three weeks earlier after declining an offer from the Arizona Cardinals to come to training camp and following a season with the Cincinnati Bengals in which he not only looked out of place in the uniform, but also played poorly.
Yet when Jarvis Jones was injured in Week 3, the Steelers were looking for a linebacker who could put pressure on the quarterback and felt Harrison was the best option among free agents.
Three months later, the Steelers have qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and Harrison has played a sizeable role in getting them there.
Harrison has amazed observers all around the NFL with his career resurrection. Everyone, that is, except Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
“James is a good player,” LeBeau said. “That’s why we wanted to sign him. We felt he was still a good player and he is. I’m not surprised at all. Everyone has seen what he has done of the course of career.”
Harrison was once the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year but that was in 2008. The last of his five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances came in 2011.
There are just a few days left in 2014 but Harrison has somehow been able to push the sun back up into the sky.
That does not surprise Steelers coach Mike Tomlin because of one reason.
“He’s a football lover,” Tomlin said.
Harrison defied his age and recent history again last Sunday when the Steelers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 20-12 at Heinz Field to clinch a postseason berth. After missing two weeks with a knee injury that left many to wonder if that marked his last stand, Harrison returned and notched seven tackles and 1 ½ sacks as the Steelers held the Chiefs to four field goals.
“He’s ageless and timeless,” Steelers second-year linebacker Vince Williams said. “He’s been big for us. We’re fortunate to have him.”
Harrison is third on the team with 5 ½ sacks despite playing in just 10 of the Steelers’ 15 games. That puts him only one sack behind co-leaders Jason Worilds and Cameron Heyward.
“He doesn’t hold anything back,” Heyward said of Harrison. “He goes as hard as he can on every single play.”
Last year, Harrison had just two sacks the Bengals in the only one of his 12 seasons in which he did not play for the Steelers.
Harrison has never been a self-promoter and that hasn’t changed during his renaissance.
“We’ve started to mesh together as a unit and that’s what’s most important,” Harrison said. “Guys are doing their jobs consistently. We’re not having as many lapses as we did earlier in the season.”
It seems Harrison hasn’t had any lapses last season, though Tomlin isn’t quite ready to say he is the same caliber of player than he was in his glory days.
“You have to remember the mid-2000s (and) the type of animal that he was,” Tomlin said. “James plays with a great deal of emotion and desire. He’s got great football character. Obviously he’s got a lot of talent. But he’s got 36-37-year-old talent as opposed to late 20-year-old talent like he used to have and there’s a difference.”
Maybe not but …
“I’ll still take the guy he is now,” Tomlin said with a smile.