Pittsburgh Steelers  

 

Tomlin the right man to help Steelers move past Harrison's rant

For some organizations, James Harrison's verbal barrage and outlandish statements would create some real inner turmoil. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, and particularly emboldened coach Mike Tomlin, I don't expect it to prompt much consternation.

While Harrison's antics eventually could expedite his departure from Pittsburgh, in the short term -- as in whenever the NFL lockout ends -- I expect Tomlin to quickly squash it and move forward.

Tomlin has done a tremendous job shepherding his team through what have been tumultuous offseasons. He commands universal respect throughout the Steelers' locker room, and he's direct and unequivocal in how he addresses situations like this. Tomlin also has a long history with Harrison and knows the linebacker well, so he's uniquely equipped to handle this drama.

A less-experienced coach, a less-imposing coach, a less-respected coach, and the Steelers would have a major problem on their hands. But Tomlin's got this.

Timeline: Steelers' bumpy offseason
May 4: Two days after writing controversial tweets about the death of Osama bin Laden, Rashard Mendenhall writes a "clarification" of his comments. More ...


July 9: Hines Ward is arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in Georgia, but his manager claims the receiver wasn't impaired. More ...


July 13: James Harrison calls NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a "crook" and a "devil," among other insults, in a magazine article, and also takes some of his teammates to task. More ...


COMMENTARY
» Wyche: Harrison ripping teammates too far
» La Canfora: LB could force Steelers' hand
» Lombardi: Lack of contact at heart of issue
» Watch: Bettis disappointed in Harrison
» Watch: Did Harrison cross the line?

He'll deal with it, I'm sure, at the first team meeting after the lockout. Tomlin will call out Harrison for attacking his own teammates in the press -- always a locker-room taboo -- and set him straight, and then the Steelers will move forward. Tomlin has been down this road before. He knows the drill.

This is James being James; think of former baseball player Manny Ramírez being Manny Ramírez, with a bit more of a violent tinge. Harrison's teammates know the ferocity with which he plays. They know when Harrison starts really talking and gets all lathered up that he just can't help from crossing the line sometimes. They know it's mostly bluster, and that Harrison can be a sucker for the microphone and the sound of his own voice.

It wasn't a shock that Harrison would go off at some point during this exaggerated lockout. The same fire that burnt through his rant infuses his play on Sundays, making him so great on the field. The Steelers decided they could live with it, at least in the short term. Having a coach like Tomlin allows them that luxury.

Tomlin treats his players like men. He isn't afraid to be bold (exiling kicker Jeff Reed when he struggled last season, for instance). Tomlin has done nothing but win since taking over for Bill Cowher, providing a seamless transition and quickly emerging from the legend's shadow. He is thoroughly empowered and the voice of that organization. That serves the Steelers well now, as it did during their sagas with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and former wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

Not all coaches would have the inclination, or the wherewithal, to stand toe-to-toe with Harrison, but Tomlin does.

And for the most part, as bizarre as Harrison can be, his teammates seem to genuinely get him. That even includes those who found themselves on the wrong side of his rants. Harrison will work to make sure all fences are mended, and players such as safety Ryan Clark and linebacker LaMarr Woodley already have made it clear they have their teammate's back. Their group is too strong for something like this to really divide them.

One Steelers source likened Harrison to a family's beloved crazy uncle, saying: "Everybody in this building loves him. The coaches love him, the players love him, the secretaries love him. He may say some crazy things, but he's our crazy guy. We love him."

The source also said that word is making the rounds that Harrison, who originally planned not to attend Roethlisberger's wedding later this month, has been advised it might be a good idea to show up, and some teammates figure he'll do so.

This might not be a big deal for players and coaches, but tricky questions linger for Steelers management and ownership. They, too, understand it's James being James, but at some point, talk goes too far. Having a player use gay slurs, go after teammates and call NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a "devil" will make any front office uncomfortable. Doing so on the heels of the Roethlisberger rape case, Holmes' off-the-field issues that played a part in him being traded to the New York Jets last offseason, Rashard Mendenhall's tweets about Osama bin Laden's death and the 9/11 terror attacks this offseason, and Hines Ward being arrested for suspicion of DUI earlier this month only complicates things.

The Rooney family always has made it clear that no one is above the team, and Harrison is walking a dangerous line here. You tolerate certain behavior, for a while, when a player is irreplaceable. But in any sport, much less one as physically taxing as football, no one is irreplaceable forever. And each of these episodes, when stacked together, builds a case against Harrison's long-term employment.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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