Joey Porter, OLB coach, Pittsburgh Steelers
What's it like coaching James Harrison, a guy who's your friend?
JP: "It's good because of where we're at in our careers. It's a situation where I'm still respected as a coach. It's not like he doesn't look at me like a coach because we are close. I've been in it long enough, as far as playing, and coached him when he was a young guy. Even when we let him go all those years, I was still coaching him then in my own different way trying to help him make the team, because I never really felt we should have cut him. We were actually pissed a couple of times. Not to take anything away from Matt Cushing, but one year we kept four tight ends. We cut him and kept Cushing twice. We were like, 'How can you tell me Cushing's a better special-teams player than Harrison?' We were always mad."
Did you say anything to Bill Cowher?
JP: "No. You don't do that. We still knew our role. You never challenge the head man's decision but we thought he definitely earned it. It was two years in a row he led us in special-teams tackles, and that was Cowher Rule: 'I'm not going to get rid of good special-team players.' And he did it twice. So that kind of caught us off guard. Then one year we released him and we brought in Erik Flowers and he was terrible. He was like tripping over the bags. We were like, 'We let Deebo go for him?' That kind of caught us off guard but that final year, when he came back, he got a chance to play middle linebacker and outside linebacker, so he gave him the chance at two positions. As hard as it was, he tried to learn as best as he could. That was the first year he finally made the team and he never looked back after that."
Was that the year he was looking at his wristband? Keith Butler said guys made fun of him.
JP: "Yeah. I was a wristband guy too. I taught him how to do it, because I went through all the bullcrap my rookie year of not knowing where I was going and they kept me off the field. So my second year in the league I was like, 'Man, if I could just get it, dissect what I've got before the offense comes out, I don't care if it's on a wristband or not. At least I'm going the right way and justifying why I'm out here.' You don't understand playing with Levon Kirkland. If you don't know what you're doing, he don't want you on the field, period. I was worried about Levon getting me. Levon was going to get me before Cowher got me, and you didn't want to piss off Captain Kirk because if Captain Kirk doesn't think you know the defense he's going to vote you off the island and you're not going to play. The standard to answering to Captain Kirk was bigger at the time to me. I had to get the approval of him to be on the field, because I was a second-year guy and they put me in the starting lineup. Vrabel had already been here, going in his fourth year, and me and him battled for the spot and I kind of beat him out in training camp, but I had to make sure I wasn't making mistakes because it wouldn't justify it to the rest of the defense."
We in the media didn't know if you had made mistakes. You dominated in the preseason and then the very end of your rookie year, good on teams. We were all wondering why they weren't playing you. So, it was mental errors?
JP: "Aw, man, yeah, I was making so many mistakes. I never admitted it but that's what I was trying to cover up. I hustled so much to just try and still make football plays no matter how many mental mistakes I was making. That's a TOUGH defense to come in as a rookie to pick up. There are a lot of moving parts that go on with it. As I coach it now, I try and coach Bud and Chickillo and these young guys, even Jarvis, a different way to look at it, because you can look at it from a defensive standpoint. It took me until Year Four before I knew where all the parts were at. Year One, I was just trying to make sure I could line my ass up right. Year Two, I was still just trying to make sure I could line me up. Year Three, I kind of figured it out a little bit. But Year Four, that's when I could really play football. I'm not thinking pre-snap. I know the defense. I know where I'm supposed to be. I know where my help, the guy I've got to spill it to. When you see that, that's when the light has clicked on and they'll really play football. Same with Troy. Troy, we knew how good he was because we saw how fast he could run, but he didn't know the defense at first. But when he got it [slaps hands] that's when he turned into the player that he is."
The story is you and Jason Gildon kind of put your arms around James and said this is how it works. Did you guys turn him around?
JP: "He was hard-headed. We called him the two-day vet. He was here for two days and he was acting like a veteran already. There was a play in practice, we got an interception and he just dropped the ball. And Tim Lewis was like, 'No, when you get that you've got to run.' And he said, 'Oh, is that what I'm supposed to do with it?' We were like, 'Whoa! You can't say that! That's the DC!' He didn't have the right attitude. He came in and said he thought he was going to get cut anyway, so he didn't know how seriously to take it. He was already counting the numbers and thought he didn't have a place and he didn't take it as seriously as he thought he should have. And when he came back the next year, he really did try and it still didn't work out. The same thing happened the third year. So, I think by the third time, when he went to NFL Europe, came back, did the small time in Baltimore, came back to that last training camp, he had his mind made up then that 'I'm going to do whatever the hell they tell me to do and I'm going to do it right. I'm going to close my mouth and just get my work done.' And, man, it changed him. When he went serious, got into that playbook to give himself an opportunity, that's all they wanted to see from him, because the stuff on the football field, the aggressiveness, splattering people, it came naturally to him. The thinking part -- I try and tell people who get down on Jarvis and a lot of guys, it's hard for a rookie to come right in and play, at a high level anyway, because there are a lot of moving parts for an outside linebacker. We cover, we rush, we play the run. One person moving changes your whole operation and what you've got to do. It's not like we just get out there and say 'Oh, just rush the quarterback.' It's not that simple. We do a lot of different things."
That old clip of Cowher telling a confused Greg Lloyd to 'Just rush the passer' maybe made us in the media think it's that easy.
JP [Laughs] "Well you've got to think, man, Coach LeBeau's defense is good for a reason, because we're going to influence you to think we're doing something and we're going to do a total opposite thing. We're going to show blitz as much as we can. That doesn't mean we're actually coming. We're going to drop in coverage. We're going to do a lot of different things. And it is overwhelming for a young guy, but James Harrison, like, how he overcame it and the legacy that he built for himself, I can't ever take credit for him becoming the player he is. He's a self-made guy. But I do like to take credit and say I helped raised him. I showed him everything I could as a player, and I continue to show him stuff that I know now as a coach. Just like when I had him listen to me how I played -- 'You're not a spring chicken but you still got a lot of football left in you if you want. Just listen to me.' When I was at that age, at 34, when it was done for me, 33 or 34, I was still stubborn. I thought I was an every-down player. I had coaches try to save me like 'Joey, you can't play this many plays, every play. You can prolong your career if you play 35 snaps.' In my mind, trying to play 35 snaps that meant you were trying to replace me. That's what my mindset was."
I hear he's hard to get off the field.
JP: "He is. I mean, you play a game so long you always feel like 'We have a better chance with me out there,' and I don't want to coach a guy who doesn't think like that. I want the guy to think 'We're the best when I'm out there.' He's a former Defensive Player of the Year. He made enough plays in this league to warrant that type of thinking. But he listens a little more. I thought it was going to be tougher. But I'll have my plays or two when I send Jarvis in and he waves him out, and I'll say 'Hey, don't do that to me next time.' But I did it to Coach Butts. Now he says, 'You see. You used to do that to me. It doesn't feel good.' And I'm like, 'You're right.' You're trying to send a guy in to save him, and he's in the heart of it, in game mode, and he doesn't want to come out. But we watch film and the whole thing is 'You can play. But the time you show me a lazy rep, you know you've got to come out.'"
Glad to hear you're enjoying coaching him. Did you have reservations? Wouldn't it be easier to coach guys 7-8 years younger than you?
JP: "Yeah, it is, but the thing about it is he backs what I'm saying because he knows I'm saying the same thing to them that I was telling him 10 years ago. How I played the position. I mean, the defense is still the same, how we play the position. I'm not just drawing something out of my mind like, 'Oh, I think you should be doing it this way.' I'm not just making stuff up on the fly. I'm not going to tell a player to do something I haven't done. And if I think that I was able to do it, I think that you can do it because you're still at this level, you're in the NFL. I'm not just saying 'Oh, try this out. I think this will work.' I'm giving you stuff that is proven. I've seen it. I've done it. I've watched James do it. I've watched Clark do it. Jason Gildon showed me how to do it. It came from a long line of guys who showed me. I came in with Jason Gildon, Carlos Emmons and Mike Vrabel. They showed me how to play this outside linebacker position and learn all the little small details that went with it. Jason never felt the pressure. Neither did Carlos. They didn't feel 'They drafted you to take my spot so I'm not going to help you.' He helped me. And he told me what was going to happen in the process: 'It's my contract year. They're probably going to let me go and you'll be able to step in.' He was telling me that my rookie year and he still helped me. When I got that information, I said I'll never do that to a rookie. I'll help whoever. So when we drafted Alonzo Jackson and all these guys, I didn't sit them on the sideline and not help them because they're eventually going to take my spot. I'm going to help you because I've got that much confidence in my game to where you're still going to wait until I'm done, but if something happens you need to be ready to play. That was the thing James teaches the young guys now. Now, he could be stubborn and feel like 'Yeah, I'm better than you guys. I should be out there every play.' But he understands where we're at. He's 37. I'm 38. He's one of the last of the dying breed still playing from our era. Enjoy, play hard, but you know you're not a 70-snap guy any more. You've just got to use common sense with yourself. We all lose a step or two when we get older. Our mind gets sharper, but you know you don't have that same first step and have to figure out what's now the quickest way to get there. I used to be able to just run a guy over. When you lose that you've got to think 'How can I get there in the same time without the same speed?' Now you're playing chess instead of checkers."
You went over this with him?
JP: "Yeah me and James talk all the time. And he's accepted it real, real well, and he runs the room to where he's the big brother in the room. They look to him for answers. I'm the coach. I tell them what it is. James always gives them tips and explains why I say what I say. Because I've been with him so long, he knows I'm not going to lead them down a wrong alley. I'm giving you the answers. Ask me anything; not just football but off the field, on the field. When you've been in the league as long as I have, as long as James has -- and if we didn't cut him those three times he would be on Year 17. I retired in Year 13 and he barely got to Year 13 because they robbed him of those first three years. But, nah, man, it's fun to work with him. Now I come and workout with him in the morning before practice starts. That part of it just keeps me in it with him, and we're steadily talking football during our workout. That's a family member. I don't even look at it as coaching or a teammate. His kids are my nephews; my kids are his nephews. I've known his family since I met him. It'll never be, to get my point across to him or any of the guys, I don't ever feel that I have to yell or swear or anything because it's simple: If you're not doing it right, I'm going to put somebody else in. It's really that simple. We don't have to go at it to get my point across, so we'll never have to get it to a disrespectful level, like 'You're acting different because you're a coach.' He knows what's right. He gets it. If I had taken it five years ago, I don't know. But I feel at this stage he understands the big picture."
I think he dislikes reporters asking about leadership and basically trying to put him in a box.
JP: "He's willing to take certain credit for certain stuff. Like him taking all the players to Arizona in the offseason to show him how he works out. Now his workout isn't for everybody. He trains a different way to get ready for the season. But as a young guy seeing him play this long, people want to know the recipe. He's like, 'I don't stay here in the cold to train. I go to Arizona. It costs this amount of dollars to take care of all my food and my stay. And I work out every single day. I'm not here on vacation. I'm here to work for six weeks straight.' When he first went out there, he said, 'I'll send someone back in a couple weeks because they're not going to make it.' But, when you're out there with him and you see the grind he's going through, the last thing you want to do is quit. And they toughed it out."
Did you ever go with him there?
JP: "Nah, I never was big on paying somebody to train. I know what I need to do. I'm not going to allow myself to get out of shape with a season coming up, so I don't feel I've got to pay someone to keep me in shape. I'm going to do that regardless. Those guys making minimum wage probably felt that way. Right. Guys like HoJo wanted to go but he knew his bank account couldn't afford him. It was guys who've been in the league a few years: Sean Spence, Vince Williams, Jarvis, Shazier and him. Woodley was already out there. In the past I think it was just him and Woodley and Ryan Clark. My thing to him was 'Show some of those young guys what it takes to stay in the league. Show them how to take care of their body.' That dude puts a lot of money into his body. I would tell the players if you look at it the way James Harrison does, when you're at his status, would you invest $100,000 in yourself to yield $5 million?' All of them answered yes right away. That's what he does to his body. He invests that much in his body in acupuncture, all these needles, all the massages, hyperberic chambers, different chiropractors. He does all this stuff. Well when he goes out there and plays at the level he plays at, it's warranted. Everybody's not there to invest that type of money in themselves. He didn't start doing all of that until he was financially able to. He knows it's not for everybody. He works out like a damned bodybuilder. I would imagine when it's over we'll see his ass on some muscle magazine."
But he got big after he retired. That's unlike him.
JP: "Well he had trained as if he was going to come back. And then when it got to the end of the summer, and it didn't happen, by the time 4th of July came around, and training camps were about to start, then he thought it was finally over. Jarvis breaks his wrist. The fire never stopped burning. He wanted to go to Arizona but he didn't want to go to Arizona. He wanted to play but he didn't want it to end in Arizona. He didn't really like being in Cincinnati. He was just doing that because he knew his football wasn't over."
Joey Porter goes from Kirkland to Dupree in this compelling discussion about the Steelers' James Harrison
Joey Porter, OLB coach, Pittsburgh Steelers