After putting his John Hancock on a two-year contract with the Steelers, and entering his 14th season, the curiosity for me has become how long can a man defy time and continue to play in the NFL at such a high level?
Lost in the excruciating loss to the Dallas Cowboys was the excellent play of Harrison against Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith. Standing 6-5 and weighing in at a lean, mean 320 pounds, Tyron in my mind is unquestionably the best left tackle in the game, and maybe the best lineman period. And yet the 6-0, 265-pound AND 38-year-old Harrison torched Smith several times with his pass rush, stuffed Smith on several running plays and did something that nobody even half Deebo's age (or thereabouts, I flunked math twice) seemed able to do: essentially stalemate, if not dominate, Smith.
I saw James in the weight room at the Steelers' facility on the South Side worldwide headquarters the following day. Now, remember this was a night game, but the following day, at roughly 9 a.m., Harrison was well sweated-up and deep into another one of his legendary workouts.
While James sucked down some air during a brief respite, I went in to ask him a couple questions about some things I’d seen the previous night, a little change in technique here and there, that sorta thing.
With sweat dripping down his face, James listened attentively for a moment and then laughed. He went on to tell me how Tyron had asked him the very same question on the field less than 12 hours earlier. After explaining the technique adjustment, he looked at me and said “Don’t tell nobody!”
Your secret is safe with me, brother.
Obviously, this is decidedly a different day and age for NFL players. The rigors of yesteryear have diminished over time as the NFL moved away from the sheer brutality of its roots and into modernistic times that emphasize players' health concerns over the big hits that used to headline Sports Center on ESPN.
James is a unique cat to be sure. Aside from his unusual life story, which includes being cut several times at the beginning of his career, James came into the NFL and grew up in the Big Hit era. James knows the rigors of two-a-days in training camp. He knows what it’s like to put on the pads a couple of times a week and bang in practice throughout the course of a 16-game season, and still have to hit big, hit fast and stay healthy every weekend.
For James to excel in two different eras as he has -- and do it as an outside linebacker in the mode of rushing the passer, buzzing the flats in coverage and setting the edge against running plays -- makes his accomplishments all the more grand.
And then you have to come back to him being undersized.
Always lacking the arm length in any matchup with any offensive lineman, and never having played against anyone he can look in the eyes while mutually standing, James excels in body mechanics and strength. Because he is 6-0, because he can squat a barbell loaded with manhole covers for reps and because he can throw an uppercut without having to slow down to coil up and power through the arc during a pass rush, James can apply power in positions of inflexibility that make life miserable for your average 6-5 offensive tackle.
Nobody wants to have to throw a choke hold on James. Nobody wants to be in a position at which their head is out over their knees and their hips are high, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand. Try to recover from that position, and if you can you’re already better than Kansas City's Eric Fisher. But the math in the leverage battle says this: a choke hold is your last resort if you’re head-heavy and don’t bend your knees against James.
Once you can turn the tackle sitting on the arc during a pass rush, then you can go right down the center of a man with your “Go-to” move, which is a bull rush.
It’s like pushing a car that’s run out of gas. Stick your forehead in a player's chin, and then climb the body. It’s the most caveman-like pass rush going, but most guys can’t even come near Harrison’s ability to take a 330-plus pound man and make him look like a Sonic waiter on roller skates.
Yes, I noticed some cracks in the armor of Deebo last year, moments when James looked mortal rather than the Android Terminator who's made a career out of beating up offensive linemen. James may not have a game-changing/saving play in his back pocket every game, as he seemed to throughout most of his storied career, because Father Time will eventually get to you and erode your skills, no doubt. But let me ask you this: Who would you rather have lining up on Eric Fisher in a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium for a tying two-point conversion attempt than James Harrison?
To quote the great country singer Toby Keith, “I may not be as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”
Sometimes once is enough.