"I think the single play that signified Tommie Harris' dominance came in 2006. The Bears were playing the Vikings. I saw Tommie beat a guard-center double team. He discarded the blockers and then went after Brad Johnson. The amazing part of the play was Tommie's ability to still have enough juice to get the QB. It took him one step to close on Johnson. One step! That type of explosiveness has been missing for a while." – Laurence Holmes, WSCR 670 The Score
If defensive tackle Tommie Harris was capable of returning to the dominating form he showed earlier in his career, when he was voted to three straight Pro Bowls by the tender age of 24, he would have done it by now.
If he was again going to be the one-gap penetrator, blowing up running plays before they had a chance to develop and terrorizing quarterbacks before they located their primary receivers, he would have done it by now.
If he was on his way back to being the epicenter of a Super Bowl-caliber defense from his three-technique position, the most important position in Lovie Smith's version of the Cover 2, he would have done it by now.
But he hasn't. He hasn't for quite some time. Even the third of his three Pro Bowl berths, in 2007, was earned on reputation more than production. That reputation finally took a hit in 2008, when Harris flat-out disappeared for weeks at a time. And so far in 2009, he has pulled the Houdini act even more frequently, denting the stat sheet about as often as a run-of-the-mill special teamer.
It's hard to blame Harris for his lack of highlight-reel plays recently, not after the kind of injury he suffered on December 3, 2006, in a victory over the division-rival Vikings.
On the same play in the third quarter, a tackle of Minnesota running back Chester Taylor, Harris not only wrecked the medial collateral ligament in his left knee but also tore his left hamstring. That hamstring had to be surgically reattached to the bone, an incredibly difficult procedure not often seen in the NFL. The knee continues to be an issue based on the fact that it has kept him off the practice field on Wednesdays for the better part of two and a half years, plus he had it scoped again this part March – information that wasn't made public until August, by the way.
It's been difficult for Bears fans to know just what to think of Harris since that injury, as he sometimes claims to be totally healthy and other times admits to being less than 100 percent.
"I'm doing fine," Harris said before Week 1 against the Chargers in 2007, which was to be his first game back after finishing the previous year on injured reserve. "There are no problems. I'll be ready for San Diego in the season opener, and I promise you that you will know I'm ready."
Harris played well despite the Bears losing to the Chargers 14-3, recording five tackles and one for a loss. The following week, he had eight tackles to go along with a pair of sacks against the Chiefs. That started a seven-game stretch for the former first-round draft pick in which he was credited with seven sacks, looking good as ever and convincing everyone that both his knee and hamstring were doing just fine, thank you very much.
However, over the course of the next seven games, he only registered one tackle for loss and didn't sack the enemy quarterback a single time. A sack against the Saints in the season finale pushed him to a career-high eight, and while Harris was named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, whispers around the league suggested he didn't truly deserve the trip to Hawaii. Not only did the Bears end up 7-9 and out of the playoffs after a Super Bowl run the year before, but a supposedly dominant defense finished 28th in the league.
While most everyone expected Harris to be healthier in 2008 considering the amount of time lapsed after his injury two seasons prior, if anything, he looked more limited than he had the year before. After zero sacks and just one tackle for loss the first three games, he was on the inactive list for a crucial showdown at Soldier Field with Philadelphia. His knee was bothering him again, making it difficult to be on the practice field and prepare for the upcoming opponent on a weekly basis.
Perhaps even more disturbing, the usually gregarious Harris started to exhibit some strange behavior when speaking to the media, including a Rickey Henderson-like jump to the third person.
"Tommie just got in from vacation this week, so hopefully he's ready to play," Harris said leading up that Eagles game, when he ended up watching from the sideline in street clothes. "He has been taking some time off. Hopefully, everything's all right with him."
Harris also missed the next week's game, on the road at NFC North foe Detroit, but not because of injury.
After it came to light that he wasn't taking his rehab seriously enough, continually being late for treatment sessions and sometimes blowing them off altogether, Smith did what he had to do to get Harris' attention and suspended him for the Lions game.
"It's always disappointing when you have to suspend one of your players," said Smith at Halas Hall. "But nothing's bigger than the team, so we'll kind of move on from there. Injuries happen. Players don't play from time to time. You have to move on. We played last week without Tommie, so we've been in that situation before."
Harris came off the suspended list and started the final 10 games of the 2008 campaign, and he even got hot for a while shortly after his return – maybe Smith's motivational ploy had worked. The former Oklahoma Sooner had a tackle for loss in four straight games from October 19 to November 16, plus he was rushing the passer effectively again and got five sacks in a six-game stretch from Week 8 to Week 14. Three consecutive December home wins put the Bears in position to make it back to the playoffs, provided they won at Houston in the season finale and got some help from around the league.
While that help did materialize, the Bears couldn't hold up their end of the bargain and were topped by the Texans 31-24. Harris was quiet on the afternoon, making four tackles but none behind the line of scrimmage and he never got near quarterback Matt Schaub. Chicago missed the postseason with a 9-7 mark, thanks in large part to a defense that ranked only 21st in the NFL.
Yes, the Bears have played without Tommie. Yes, the Bears have won without Tommie. But have the Bears truly been special on defense – as they were the second half of 2005 in winning the division, and the first half of 2006 in making it all the way to Super Bowl XLI – without Tommie continually wreaking havoc in the trenches?
The numbers say no. So do the amount of playoff games Smith and Co. have watched from the comfort of their own living rooms the last two winters. There's only one way to explain how a D littered with Pro Bowlers at most every position can finish 28th and 21st in a two-year span: Harris, the backbone of the entire scheme, isn't right.
Which brings us to 2009. After general manager Jerry Angelo made the Broncos an offer they couldn't refuse and brought Jay Cutler to Chicago, there was a renewed excitement surrounding the organization. Cutler would finally put an end to all those Sid Luckman jokes. Running back Matt Forte was destined for superstardom after a terrific rookie campaign. Brian Urlacher didn't have to rehab an injury during the offseason and looked fresh for the first time in a while. Lance Briggs was in the prime of his career. Dave Toub's special teams were always among the best in the business – punting, kicking, returning, covering, whatever.
And with yet another offseason of R&R, Harris had to be back to normal by now, right?
Wrong. Throughout training camp in Bourbonnais, Harris took lots of practices off for one reason or another. Even on the days he did suit up, he didn't do much. He'd take the first snap or two during 11-on-11 drills before giving way to the likes of Israel Idonije and rookie Jarron Gilbert. When it was time for the preseason opener against the Bills, Harris didn't bother to pack his helmet before boarding the flight to Buffalo.
That's about the time it came to light that Harris underwent another arthroscopic surgery, giving more ammunition to the naysayers out there believing his knee is permanently damaged.
"I had surgery in March," he revealed to surprised reporters, "so I didn't get a chance to do a lot of stuff that the teammates were doing. So they're far ahead of me. So I'm really just starting to catch up. I would love to be out there, but I do so much in the weight room and all the training and all the other stuff that you guys don't see. The hardest thing is knowing how political this business is and having to wear pads and sit on the sideline, acting like I'm going out there and different stuff like that. But it's a bit frustrating. But I'm going to hang in there and just see how it plays out."
The 2009 regular season got off to a ho-hum start for Harris. One tackle in a loss to the Packers. One tackle in a win over the Steelers. Three tackles in a win over the Seahawks. One tackle in a win over the Lions. One tackle in a loss to the Falcons. Sure, he nabbed his first career interception when Detroit's Matthew Stafford threw an ill-advised screen pass right to No. 91 in Week 3, but big plays from Harris were nowhere to be found.
Perhaps even more indicative of just how far he has fallen since that fateful day in December of 2006, some fans want to block off traffic on Lake Shore Drive and throw a ticker-tape parade when he does make a big play. "Look at that! Tommie Harris made a tackle in the backfield! Good for him!" What is now deemed to be so special used to be so routine for the 6-3, 295-pounder.
The story took another turn for the worse surrounding that 45-10 embarrassment at Cincinnati in Week 7, when Smith again had to take a stand with Harris and put him on the inactive list against the Bengals because he couldn't – wouldn't? – hit the practice field.
"I thought we had better options," Smith said at the podium the following Monday.
Really? Better options than the one-time Defensive Player of the Year candidate you signed to a four-year, $40 million contract extension on June 19, 2008? Said better option turned out to be second-year pro Marcus Harrison, who started at Harris' three-technique position, the same Marcus Harrison placed on the non-football injury list for reporting to training camp fat and out of shape.
Although he is a fixture on the injury report with a knee issue and has been for the better part of three seasons, the heads at Halas Hall have gone out of their way to say that Harris is healthy – at least physically. Mentally? That could be another issue altogether.
Apparently feeling more disrespected than humbled after his one-game sit-down, Harris didn't see any need to get back on Smith's good side.
"I don't have to show him anything," he said the following week, again during a press Q&A that could only be described as uncomfortable. "He knows what I can do. Everybody knows what I can do. I don't have to prove anything to anybody."
In a 30-6 win over the Browns that wasn't nearly as impressive as the final score would indicate, Harris returned to the lineup and made two solo tackles.
One week later, he got ejected from Chicago's 41-21 loss to the Cardinals when he punched a defenseless Deuce Lutui on the first series of the game, leading to even more questions about Harris' mental state.
Signed through 2012, he represents salary-cap numbers of $8.8 million, $11.1 million and $6.3 million over the course of the next three seasons. But when you take a closer look at his contract, the Bears protected themselves by putting much of Harris' money in the form of annual roster bonuses instead of a gigantic up-front signing bonus. Since roster bonuses are governed differently by the NFL than signing bonuses, severing ties with him wouldn't be financially crippling.
As a matter of fact, should the Bears set Harris free before his next roster bonus is due this coming offseason, the cap hit would be a relatively palatable $2.665 million.
Saying sayonara to the disappointing Cedric Benson before 2008 cost Chicago $2.509 million in dead cap space, and Angelo didn't think twice about doing that. Moreover, that was with the Bears not getting very much return on their investment in Benson before deep-sixing him, with the Bengals now reaping the rewards of giving the former No. 4-overall pick a second chance. Chicago has likely already gotten the best out of Harris, what with him noticeably limping between plays in the Atlanta game this season, potentially making it even easier to cut the cord.
Bears fans will be forced to scratch their heads if a healthy Benson winds up in the Pro Bowl wearing a Cincinnati uniform, but that's a day they'll likely never have to face with what appears to be a chronically disappointing Harris.
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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