So, while it may have come as a surprise to Packers fans that the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, set to return to the field after a major knee injury, a stint on the PUP list and a yearlong recovery process, was released on Monday, it should not have.
Coach Mike McCarthy summarized on Monday that the decision to release Harris was based on the "overall depth and future of our roster," which was just another way of saying that the team no longer has a role for the 35-year-old.
In what has become a complex game of building a roster and then narrowing it down to 45 players each game day with a game plan in mind, there was no way the Packers could keep Harris unless he was given his starting job back. Here is why.
Almost every player active on game day — except maybe a lineman or two or a backup quarterback — plays. Those who do not start play special teams in some capacity — on coverage units, return units, punting units or kicking units.
That makes each roster spot valuable or at least accounted for in some fashion. And even though it may be difficult to keep a special teams performer like Jarrett Bush or Diyral Briggs, or a third fullback like Quinn Johnson, instead of Harris, it makes sense.
Had the Packers cut Bush or Briggs or Johnson, that would mean Harris would have to play special teams in some capacity based purely on numbers. At Harris' age, with his experience and knowing his makeup, there was no way McCarthy would ask that.
The bigger matter, however, would be finding a spot for Harris in the defensive backfield, where he has made a name for himself over the past decade. In his absence over the first nine games this season, Tramon Williams has stepped up as a starter with a Pro Bowl-type season, so the Packers would not think about making a change there. Rookie Sam Shields, the Packers' third cornerback, has come along so well, too, that even with limited experience he just might be the second-best cover corner on the team (see interception Sunday night vs. the Cowboys). And although Pro Bowl veteran Charles Woodson has struggled at times this year with penalties and in coverage, defensive coordinator Dom Capers keeps finding ways to get the most out of him as a zone defender, blitzer and run stopper.
Therefore, Harris would have started out his comeback as the fourth cornerback on depth chart, a position that would be tough for him to accept considering he has not been there in more than 10 years. And because the Packers hardly ever play a dime defense, his chances of seeing the field would be slim to none.
So, why keep a respected veteran who wants to play, deserves a chance to play, but probably never will, on the roster? Not to mention taking the chance he can return at age 35 from a horrific knee injury and play at the same level he did before the injury?
There is also the injury argument, the "what if" Woodson or Williams goes down question. Where will the Packers turn for a capable defensive back?
Certainly, Harris would represent a better option than either of those players. But the Packers cannot make decisions based solely on the chance that an injury may happen to a specific position group. They have to keep their depth in mind at all positions and react to injuries when they happen. That philosophy has worked pretty well this year. Remember, this is a team missing two of its most explosive weapons on offense (Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant) and three starters on defense (Nick Barnett, Brad Jones and Morgan Burnett), not to mention a number of other players who have missed game action, yet is 6-3 as one of the contenders in the NFC.
As McCarthy said on Monday, releasing Harris, after eight seasons in Green Bay, was a tough decision, and in many ways, an unpopular one. But it was one the Packers had to make because a guy like Harris, even at 35 years old, is not wired to play special teams, or even worse, sit on the sideline.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org