Steelers' Harrison willing to 'let chips fall where they may'

After Sunday's game, draped only in a towel and sitting on a chair in front of his locker in Miami's visiting locker room, James Harrison spoke in reserved, almost hushed tones about the week that was, his first in the NFL under the league's new crackdown of illegal hits on defenseless players.

He was thoughtful and concise, almost devoid of emotion, a complete contrast from his agitated mood all week, including through Sunday's charged victory over the Dolphins. Indeed, shortly before kickoff Sunday, as a camera crew was panning the field during warm-ups, Harrison revealed a more human, visceral, reaction to the league, pulsing with adrenaline and ranting into the lens about how the league wasn't going to change the way he played football.

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Afterwards, he offered none of that, despite teammates just one locker over -- fellow Steelers linebackers James Farrior and LaMarr Woodley -- telling me unequivocally that Harrison was definitely more fired up than usual for this contest.

"I wasn't trying to send a message," Harrison contended following his team's controversial win. "There was no extra motivation than it is any other game. I was just out there playing the game the way I was taught to play it since I was 10 years old."

Harrison was the face of the players last week, personifying this dismay and, at times, rage at the league by threatening to retire following his $75,000 fine from Week 6 and a rebuke from the NFL's football operations department informing him that another such infraction would quite likely result in suspension. While his threat was hollow at best, it represented the most overt backlash to the league's message that in the future, even first-time offenders could sit a game for unleashing a helmet-to-helmet hit.

Some have already contended -- after the sample size of just 14 games -- that the more stringent discipline thresholds have changed the game, resulting in fewer big hits, more room and yards for receivers and, perhaps, made the game less physical. I contend that it's too early to be drawing any sweeping conclusions. Harrison, for his part, said only once during four quarters of play against the Dolphins did the league's edict cross his mind and alter his course of action.

On one play, Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown was coming across the middle and looked like he was going to the ground, perhaps smiling. In this instance, Harrison flashed back to his head-to-head contact with Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi from Week 6, which resulted in his fine.

"It was sort of like the same situation," Harrison said. "I had my angle to where I could hit him in the chest, and he crouched down and I ended up hitting helmet-to-helmet and I got fined for it.

"So I didn't want to jump in there on (the Ronnie Brown play). Next time they'll probably suspend me. I didn't put my head in there; other than that it really didn't change anything."

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If that is the extent of the impact for the most high-profile player caught up in this matter, then so be it. Again, only time will tell if mentalities change and if the disincentive of suspension curbs this problem -- or perhaps even goes too far as to start changing the way the game is played.

But I'm not buying that this all of a sudden became a loosey-goosey product because of a few memos from the league office. I don't recall any defenders running away from contact. Pulling up slightly?? At times, perhaps. But there is nothing in the rulebook to deter from clattering contact between the knees and shoulders. If there was a subconscious overreaction by some players, that could wane over time.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, during his Tuesday press conference, said he saw no tangible evidence the game was being played differently.

"I didn't see anything of that nature," Tomlin said.

Many are pointing to the high-scoring nature of Week 7, with games averaging nearly 53 points last week, a record pace. Let's not forget, however, there were an NFL record nine interceptions returned for touchdowns on Sunday, and another fumble returned for a touchdown. There was a staggering number of turnovers in general (forcing takeaways are generally the byproduct of playing with aggression and hitting people, not the opposite).

This will remain the hot-button issue in the league. Soon enough, someone is going to sit out a game for his actions, and it could be someone with a limited track record of such behavior. It will be a key issue of contention in the ongoing CBA negotiations as well, with the union seeking to have a third party determine this degree of on-field discipline rather than the Commissioner's Office directly, as was previously agreed to.

I asked Harrison, given his approach to the game and the fact he is squarely on the repeat-offender list, if he felt a suspension was inevitable. He didn't speak directly to the issue.

"That's what they say -- I'm a repeat offender," Harrison said. "I've never been fined for a helmet-to-helmet hit before last week. So I'm over that now."

He has, however, racked up his fair share of unnecessary roughness penalties and fines, and if the league deems you showed any intent to injure -- particularly by slamming the head to the ground, or anything into the head -- then swift discipline is coming.

If the net result of all of this is perhaps a split-second, second thought about a potentially egregious hit, I'm more than fine with it. But the reality is that we still don't know exactly how the announcements from last week will touch the game, though I can understand why the NFL was enthused by the empirical results from the first week of this new era. No penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits had plenty of people smiling.

As for Harrison?

"I'm just going to play the game the way I was taught to do it, and let the chips fall where they may," he said.

Time catching up with Favre

At least twice in this space over the last six weeks I have opined about the day coming when Tarvaris Jackson would make more sense as the starting quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings than Brett Favre. That time has come.

Favre's last season in the NFL is starting to look a whole lot more like Johnny Unitas' swan song than John Elway's, and I don't foresee much improving in the second half. His health is deteriorating, his play has been awful and the Vikings need a spark. It's time for Brad Childress to man up on his $20-million mistake and let the more mobile, athletic and unpredictable Jackson take the reigns behind what must be a dedicated ground-control offense.

Statistically, Favre has been the worst full-time starter in the NFL this season -- period. Sure, the Derek Andersons and Matt Moores and Jimmy Clausens have a worse passer rating, but none of those guys has been an every-week starter. Among all quarterbacks appearing in at least four games, Favre's 68 rating ranks dead last. Consider, both Raiders QBs Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski have higher ratings, as well as the likes of Alex Smith.

Last year, miraculously, Favre's body somehow held up, and he enjoyed perhaps his greatest season ever. His body could still do enough to overcome that devilish twinkle in his eye, that instinct to force the ball and always try to make a play. A year ago, he rewarded Childress (with No. 4 you get not only the experience and strong arm, but his tendency to go rouge as well). But now a beaten and hobbled Favre can't do enough physically to offset those erratic tendencies, and it's killing the Vikings.

Favre ranks 30th in the NFL in TD-INT ratio (7-10). He ranks 32nd in interception percentage (5.6 percent of his passes have been picked off). His longest pass play is 37 yards (all four Steelers QBs -- Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon, and Charlie Batch have at least a 40-yard pass, despite their far fewer passing attempts).

The decline has been swift since 2009 when, from Week 1 up until the NFC Championship Game, Favre led Minnesota to a 13-4 record and threw just seven interceptions in 555 attempts. Since the NFC title game, Favre is 2-5 and has tossed 12 picks in just 225 attempts.

So Favre went from throwing an interception once every 79 attempts for those 17 games, to once every 18.75 attempts in seven games since. Consider, former first-round bust Ryan Leaf threw one interception every 18.19 attempts (36 picks in 655 passes) and JaMarcus Russell threw an interception once every 30 attempts (23 picks in 680 passes).

I find it hard to believe that going more with Adrian Peterson and letting Jackson use his feet and set up run/pass option plays and screens can be any worse. If not for all of Favre's turnovers the Vikings would at least have a winning record. They need a game manager right now, and Favre's not wired that way.

For Favre, there should be no shame in this. His incredible game-started streak was always going to end at some point. Rarely does a quarterback who has played as long and as great as Favre go out on top. Roger Staubach, Joe Montana and Elway defied the odds, but Unitas (70.8 rating in his last season in Baltimore with a 4-6 TD-INT ratio) and others did not.

It's hard to elude time for as long as Favre has. But eventually it catches up to everyone.

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Quick hits

» For all the attention being given the Cowboys and Chargers for their collapse, the Bears could have the greatest implosion potential in the second half of the season. It was all defense and special teams keeping them afloat, but injuries are creeping up on the older defense, and the offense is a total mess. Jay Cutler is an emotional guy; he isn't a fit for that system. And with the Packers, Patriots, Dolphins, Jets, and Eagles still to play, this team could be in big trouble.

» Speaking of the Bears, special teams coach Vince Tobin deserves a vote for best assistant coach of the second half. On a staff with four current or former head coaches, he's been the only overachiever and without his unit shining to the degree it has, that team could be right where the Chargers and Cowboys are.

» Special attention should go to the work another assistant is doing in Kansas City. Emmitt Thomas is doing a superb job with that young secondary and has become a mentor to Brandon Flowers and others there. No teams have benefitted from its offseason coaching influx more than the Giants and Chiefs, and none suffered more of a brain-drain than the Bills.

» I can't help but wonder, with so much uncertainty about the 2011 labor situation, if Jerry Jones goes with a Jason Garrett or even an outsider for a year or two, waiting to pounce on Jeff Fisher or Sean Payton? I could definitely see him resisting the urge to get locked into a big-money, long-term deal with his next head coach, knowing in a year or two he might be able to get a shot at one of the guys he truly covets.

The picks are in

Went 9-5 with the picks last week, bringing me to 61-43 on the season. This week, give me the 49ers, Dolphins, Cowboys, Chiefs, Lions, Rams, Packers, Titans, Patriots, Bucs, Raiders, Saints and Colts. I'll take the Cowboys as my you-can-only-pick-them-once lock. I'm 5-2 with the locks thus far. (I've used the Dolphins, Falcons, Steelers, Packers, 49ers, Chargers, and Seahawks already).

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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