Internally, as the Pittsburgh Steelers have gone about the business of projecting their roster, assessing budgets and analyzing their future, the assumption was James Harrison -- given his age, contract and the emergence of younger teammates at his position -- probably would be around another couple of years. That still could be the case.
Wyche: Ripping teammates too much
But I can't help wondering, after all this franchise has been through off the field in recent years with Santonio Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger, if Harrison's latest tirade doesn't add to a case for an earlier departure. Free speech is golden, and I'm not naïve enough to think that Harrison's outbursts and WWF-ish posing in "Men's Journal" magazine would trigger an immediate exit.
But you also have to wonder if at some point -- like perhaps a year from now -- the Rooneys grow sick of the act and start making transitions at linebacker a little bit sooner than expected.
The Steelers already were planning to focus on securing their young linebackers -- LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons -- to long-term deals coming out of the lockout, according to numerous sources. That is the priority, as the linebackers are the lifeblood of the defense and iconic in the team's tradition. But the Steelers also are among the best organizations at knowing when to let a player go -- ask Greg Lloyd or Kevin Greene -- and as more of a ma-and-pop shop in the modern NFL, are never going to be in a position where they can pay three players top dollar at one position, even at linebacker.
Woodley currently is sitting on a franchise tag worth about $10 million, and a long-term deal likely will come in somewhere between the contracts signed by Terrell Suggs and DeMarcus Ware. That's big-boy cash, more than $30 million guaranteed. Timmons is entering the final year of his rookie deal, making $1.4 million, and will be in line for a hefty pay raise.
Historically, the Steelers have been loath to let elite players play out their contract year and don't want to keep using the franchise tag on linebackers. Harrison, 33, has a base salary that jumps from $3.6 million in 2011 to $5.3 million in 2012. By 2013, when he will be 36, Harrison would be making $6.6 million under his current deal.
The odds of him reaching that part of the contract were always remote; now perhaps more so than ever.
Harrison's comments, obviously, aren't being well received within the Steelers' front office. Trashing the commissioner is nothing new for him, but the hyperbole to which Harrison stretches things this time around will grab plenty of attention.
But it's really more what he did in calling out other teammates and taking shots at Ben Roethlisberger -- thus putting the quarterback back in the spotlight in a less-than-positive way -- that will draw ire. It's a selfish act, and unnecessary. And when you're talking to a national magazine during an interview that is set up well in advance -- there was no ambush journalism here -- it's essentially premeditated.
The league can't do anything here, in my eyes. It's a free-speech issue that happened during a league lockout. It's much more of a team issue for the Steelers, who have become increasingly turned off by look-at-me antics in recent years.
It's as good a time as any to remind anyone and everyone that no one individual is bigger than this storied franchise. It's one thing to be outspoken. It's another to spray bluster so haphazardly that it overshadows the more astute judgments Harrison has made over the years.
Uneven rhetoric like this allows one to be easily buffooned, lampooned and tuned out. It puts teammates in the awkward position of trying to clean up another's mess. It also forces ownership to respond.
That response, at times, can be more than just verbal.