By all accounts, no NFL team should even consider wasting a penny on signing James Harrison in order to add him to their playoff roster. But that’s exactly the kind of thinking that has benefitted the New England Patriots so many times before, and probably will again.
Over the weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers parted ways with linebacker James Harrison after fourteen years in a cold and calculated move that’s simply part of doing business in the NFL. One of the franchise’s all-time greats, Harrison ends his Steelers career with a team-record 80.5 sacks, but because they needed room on the roster for right tackle Marcus Gilbert, it made sense to cut the 39-year-old, who was barely contributing on the field this year (not that he agreed with that decision).
James Harrison snaps, by week
Week 1: 4
Week 3: 3
Week 6: 15
Week 7: 7
Week 14: 11
— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) December 26, 2017
With his best days behind him, Harrison seemed destined to call it a career soon and settle into a long career as a TV personality on a pregame show somewhere. However, the timing of the move and the way the AFC chessboard is currently set up caused a lot of people to make the same jokey prediction that Harrison would sign with the New England Patriots and end up being a difference-maker when the two teams inevitably meet in the AFC Championship Game.
Prediction: James Harrison is signed by the Patriots, and strip-sacks Roethlisberger for the winning TD in the AFC championship game.
— The Doctor of Grinchiness (@AngrierFish) December 23, 2017
So James Harrison got released today.
You know what that means…. pic.twitter.com/5Ybm1FgSgL
— Tim Fullerton (@TimFullerton) December 24, 2017
Three days later, sure enough, Harrison signed with the Patriots and will be on their playoff roster.
Source: former Steelers LB James Harrison is at Gillette Stadium visiting the Patriots today.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 26, 2017
Former Steelers' LB James Harrison is signing with the New England Patriots, per @FieldYates.
Could lead to potential matchup of Harrison vs. Steelers in postseason.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 26, 2017
The way the AFC playoff picture is shaking out, it’s a sure thing that the Steelers and Patriots will get first-round byes. Chances are that if the Pats make it to the AFC title game, they’re going to be staring back at Pittsburgh. While a lot of people have visions of Harrison wreaking havoc on the Steelers at the most inopportune time, it’s much more likely that New England values him as a knowledge resource other anything he can on the field.
It’s not as though the Steelers have been holding Harrison back; they’ve clearly figured out that he just wasn’t worth putting on the field any longer. It’s unlikely that having gone to the Patriots Harrison will suddenly morph back into 27-year-old James Harrison. If he does end up taking the field against Pittsburgh, it’d be in more of a troll job than a strategic maneuver.
Instead, Harrison’s greatest value to the Patriots is that he’s spent the entire 2017 season with the Steelers. He knows what’s going on in their locker room. He understands their playbook. He knows which guys are hurting and which guys have tells that the Patriots can use to their advantage. He’s an information resource that could help make the difference when it came to studying game tape.
Harrison might not like to hear any of that and might get angry if the opportunity to get back at his longtime team never materializes, but the business of the NFL always trumps what happens on the field. Harrison is a chess piece and he’s being moved about the board however it makes sense.
So the Patriots ended up doing what so many people predicted they would do. But rest assured they didn’t do it for the reason you’re thinking.