James Harrison is known for his intensity, not his humor. His sacks, not his one-liners. So the fact that he offered one of the funniest wisecracks during the Super Bowl’s Opening Night celebration Monday was as unexpected as … well, as Harrison’s presence at the Super Bowl in the first place.
How do you decide, the Patriots linebacker was asked by NFL Network, who among your 13 siblings will receive tickets to Sunday’s game?
“If you pay for ’em,” Harrison deadpanned, “you get ’em.”
Laugh-line aside — OK, he was apparently dead serious — it’s a problem that Harrison, the oldest defensive player in the NFL at 39, never expected to confront this season, the most frustrating of his All-Pro career. He was on the field for only 40 snaps all season for the Steelers, and wasn’t even activated in roughly half their games. Harrison complained that the Steelers had committed to playing him when he signed a new contract in April, and he asked more than once to be released.
Finally, with only one game remaining in the season, the Steelers grudgingly obliged. And the Patriots, who quickly contacted the two-time Super Bowl champion, still are relishing their luck.
“He’s been a great addition to our defense. It’s amazing what he’s done in just a few weeks,” Patriots free safety Devin McCourty said. “It’s not easy to come to a team that late in the season and be able to [play] in different packages. He’s been able to pick up our terminology because of his football background and how much he knows. He’s been able to play at a high level.”
That’s the level that Harrison occupied for much of his career. Undrafted out of Kent State in 2002, Harrison earned his way into the league through NFL Europe, and eventually piled up a franchise-record 80.5 sacks for the Steelers, a team with a long history of great linebackers. He was AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, and in Super Bowl XLIII in February of 2009, made one of the most memorable plays in the game’s history.
Harrison stepped in front of a Kurt Warner pass at the goal line and rumbled 100 yards up the field, breaking a couple of tackles as time expired in the half, to score a critical touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 27-23 victory over Arizona. It’s a play that’s shown on TV over and over during the lead-up to each year’s game, but it’s one Harrison doesn’t like to revisit with another championship game looming.
“It’s not worth talking about,” Harrison said Monday. “It doesn’t have anything to do with Sunday’s game. That’s all that matters now, winning the next football game.”
It wouldn’t surprise any of his teammates if he had a role in doing that, even if he doesn’t run 100 yards to do it.
“The guy’s made a career of rushing the passer, setting the edge, dropping into coverage. He’s done everything,” McCourty said. “That’s what’s special with a guy like that — he doesn’t just have one role he can do well, he has a bunch of different roles. And we need that on our defense.”
In fact, the fit in New England has worked out well. In only three games, all while trying to learn a new defense, Harrison has been on the field for 89 of the Patriots’ 200 defensive snaps, making five tackles and assisting on three more. Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said the impact Harrison has had on New England’s defense is obvious.
“The way they play their scheme, they don’t so much focus on the huge, absolute speed pass rush. It’s push the pocket, push the middle of the pocket, squeeze the pocket in from the sides,” Reich said. “That’s always been their M.O. of their defense, and it fits James. He’s a great bull rusher, a legendary bull-rush talent. He’s stepped in and is playing very well.”
So well, in fact, that Harrison told ESPN last weekend that he’s not ready to retire, that he wants to play as a 40-year-old, perhaps even at 41. On a team that values experience such as the Patriots — Harrison is a year younger than quarterback Tom Brady, after all — the past month has been a career renaissance that has even impressed the most critical evaluator: his new coach.
“He’s given us a really solid level of play. Every play, he’s into it, whether he’s in the game, in practice, on the field or on the sideline, getting the call, mentally processing the play, meetings, film, walkthroughs, all of those things,” Bill Belichick said. “This guy is a professional. He’s into football. He’s into his job and wants to do it well. I 100 percent totally respect that.”