On a team led by Tom Brady, it’s easy to yawn away the idea of age-based accomplishment. Yet in the wake of James Harrison’s two-sack performance for the Patriots against the Jets on Sunday, the linebacker couldn’t help but take a moment to appreciate his opportunity with a note of context.
“I’m 39 years old and still playing,” Harrison told reporters in the postgame locker room, “so I’m extremely blessed.”
Perhaps more notably, Harrison is also an outlier — someone whose presence on the field at his age has few precedents. In Patriots history, Harrison joined Junior Seau and Julius Adams as the only defensive players to take the field at age 39 or older, while becoming the oldest Patriot ever to record a sack.
The Patriots aren’t alone in having few players take the field on defense at Harrison’s age. At 39 years and 241 days, Harrison became the second-oldest player in the Super Bowl era to record multiple sacks in a single game. (Clay Matthews Jr. had a three-sack game as a 40-year-old in 1996.)
Yet Harrison wasn’t just a one-trick pass-rushing pony Sunday. As Ben Volin notes, Harrison showed a more complete game, not only getting to the quarterback but also making an impact in the running game and pass coverage. That sort of game is almost unheard of for a player as old as Harrison.
There have been Hall of Fame pass rushers such as Bruce Smith and Reggie White who stayed on the field with a single-minded mission of hunting quarterbacks. There have been defensive backs such as Darrell Green and Charles Woodson (as well as current Vikings defensive back Terence Newman) who sustained enough speed to allow them to work in coverage into their late 30s.
But almost no one maintains the speed and power to offer as diverse an array of contributions as Harrison made Sunday. Seau, who was 40 in his final season, and Harrison are the oldest linebackers to play in the NFL this century — but Seau, at that stage of his career, wasn’t involved at all in the pass rush.
It’s almost impossible to say whether Sunday’s performance represented something of a firefly — a brief, luminous flicker that quickly disappears. Obviously, the Steelers harbored doubts about Harrison’s ability to contribute in the fashion that he did on Sunday, a fact that made him available to New England.
Pittsburgh’s skepticism had history on its side, given that just nine players besides Harrison have been involved in a tackle (not including special teams) at the age of 39 or older since the stat started to be kept unofficially in 1994.
In the wake of Harrison’s 27-snap effort, Bill Belichick was noncommittal about his role going forward.
“We’ll just keep going forward with it and see where it goes next week,” Belichick said. “I’m not sure how that will evolve. I don’t know who we’re playing or what we’ll be doing.”
Regardless of what happens going forward, Harrison will always have Week 17 — a defensive performance for the ages among the aged.