john tlumacki/Globe staff
FOXBOROUGH — James Harrison took plenty of verbal hits since an unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh, from former teammates lambasting his undisguised efforts to force his way out of town to frenzied fans worked up about the idea of their franchise icon slipping into the jersey of a heated conference rival. No matter how you look at it, Harrison’s decision to sign with the Patriots just days after being released by the Steelers injected an unmistakable dose of drama into this late-season, pre-playoff NFL stage, a delicious scene-setter for a potentially tasty AFC Championship game rematch.
The Harrison-to-New England story line took over the NFL conversation during the week precisely because of the history between the two rival programs, dwarfing the average waiver wire transaction thanks to the high-profile stature of the decorated veteran linebacker and the strange reality of seeing him trade a black and yellow jersey for one of red, white, and blue. It was a sartorial swap that prompted Tom Brady to tell his newest teammate, “I like you much better in our colored jersey.”
But let’s be careful about turning this into some sort of sports morality play about loyalty, wherein someone such as Harrison, with a long résumé of success in Pittsburgh, including an all-time defensive play in a Super Bowl win, should preclude him from playing for a onetime rival.
Loyalty is never a two-way street, not in the business of sports. Teams will do what’s best for them, and athletes are free (and wise) to do the same.
But wrong? No way.
That’s what Patriots coach Bill Belichick meant with his “this is the National Football League” retort Friday when I asked about Harrison’s appearance on his practice field after years of being an opponent. Though Belichick had assumed his customary defensive posture, we actually agree on the topic. In a world of nonguaranteed contracts and short career shelf lives, players are in the business of wringing out every last down they can play, no matter where that might be.
“Look at any team,” Belichick expounded. “This is the National Football League. Players change teams. We have [10-year Jets veteran] David Harris. If you think this is some kind of unprecedented event, that’s just not what it is. We face somebody that’s been on our team every week. We have somebody on our team that was on some other team that we play against.
“That’s the way it is every week. This is the National Football League. We’re not talking about college now where players don’t change teams. This is professional football. It’s like that every year. It’s like that every week. It’s like that on every team. I don’t know.
“I don’t see it as some big historical event.”
A free agent signing doesn’t have to be historical to be significant, though, and it doesn’t have to cause an actual earthquake to be seismic. Harrison clearly heard the conversation (even if his new head coach didn’t want to), prompting the 39-year-old to defend his decision in a late Friday morning Instagram post. Harrison insisted he was misled about the role he would have in his professional Round 2 in Pittsburgh, writing he “didn’t sign up to sit on the bench and be a cheerleader” and that he “was clear about that when I signed, and I was told I would be on the field.”
Harrison declined to discuss the Steelers in any more detail when meeting the media Friday at his locker, but he’d already made it clear: This divorce is on them, since it was clear they didn’t really want him anymore anyway.
So he chose to come to New England, hoping a roster thin on edge pass rushers could find more use for his skills, hoping to catch on to one more Super Bowl run in a career already worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. Given the way the Patriots usually find a way to get their in-season pickups into a game immediately (Martellus Bennett in Denver, Kenny Britt in Pittsburgh), the expectation for a Harrison sighting Sunday against the Jets is high. Unlike in Pittsburgh, where young players such as T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were better options, the Patriots’ depth chart isn’t as deep, which should open a door.
That’s the way it works in the NFL, especially under a coach who uses the waiver wire better than anyone in the game. From cold cuts to veterans on the downside of their careers (Lawyer Milloy, Logan Mankins, Rodney Harrison) to trades of high-priced Pro Bowlers in their prime (Richard Seymour), Belichick is well able to take emotion out of the equation, to put loyalty aside in favor of pragmatism.
But with timely short signings of other teams’ cuts (Randy Moss, Darrelle Revis, LeGarrette Blount), he’s also proved he can work both sides of the equation.
That’s the chance Harrison has now. No one should blame him for taking it.
“From a fan’s point of view I understand it, but from a player’s point of view, everything’s a business and you’ve got to do what’s best for you and your family,” said Britt, who signed with the Patriots days after getting cut by the Browns. “You don’t owe it to anybody but yourself.”
“Guys can play anywhere in this league,” teammate Devin McCourty said. “That’s just the way it works. You never know who will show up or who will be gone. That’s the tough part about playing in the NFL.”
That’s why Harrison is a Patriot now, writing on Instagram, “I’m a competitor to my core. I live and breathe competition.”
In Pittsburgh, where he’d played all of 40 snaps this season, that competitive fire was no longer being fueled. The Steelers had, in Harrison’s words, “made a business decision.”
His response? “So did I.”
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