“He erased his own legacy,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey told reporters.
According to his now former teammates, everything went according to plan for Harrison, who was unhappy with a limited role that included 40 snaps in 14 games.
However, Harrison said that while he anticipated a reduced role, he was unhappy that he was playing even less than expected.
“After the first week of the season, I said to them, it’s clear you want to play your younger guys, and I understand, so why don’t you release me? You go on your way, and I’ll go on mine,” Harrison told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They said, ‘No, no, no, we got a role for you.'”
Harrison added that he stopped asking for his release after he played only 15 snaps in a Week 6 win over Kansas City. Although he says he was told by the team to “be ready” to play a lot of snaps in a Week 15 loss to the Patriots, Harrison again did not play at all.
“If I didn’t play in the biggest game of the year, that told me I wouldn’t get any more snaps,” Harrison told the newspaper. “So all that lip service you gave me before didn’t matter.”
Coach Mike Tomlin briefly explained Harrison’s release Tuesday, citing the need for a corresponding roster move with Marcus Gilbert‘s return from suspension.
“If you didn’t want to be here, come out and say it. Don’t make it look like it’s the team’s fault …You think the team and the organization wanted to get rid of James Harrison? Come on now. If I wanted out, I wouldn’t let the team take the blame for it.”
Teammates were not as calculated after Wednesday’s practice, with Pouncey calling out Harrison for not addressing frustrations publicly.
“If you didn’t want to be here, come out and say it,” Pouncey said. “Don’t make it look like it’s the team’s fault. … You think the team and the organization wanted to get rid of James Harrison? Come on, now. If I wanted out, I wouldn’t let the team take the blame for it.”
Added linebacker Bud Dupree: “I don’t want the media to portray that we’re the reason he left. That ain’t the reason. He chose to leave. He made certain decisions, and his actions got him to this circumstance.”
Cornerback Artie Burns said Harrison’s “energy” showed the team that he was upset about a lack of playing time, which created “a whole thing with him and the guys upstairs,” leading to his release on Saturday.
“I guess [New England is] where he wanted to be,” Burns said.
One team source said Harrison went to great lengths to get himself released.
Players witnessed Harrison sleeping in a recliner during position meetings and snoring loudly while outside linebackers coach Joey Porter tried to teach, the source said. Sometimes, Harrison would skip meetings altogether, and when he missed practices for various injuries, player suspicions would rise when Harrison conducted his famous power-lifting sessions the same week or day, the source said.
Harrison left the building at random times, would leave stadiums before or during games on days he was inactive and told teammates he was trying to get traded, released or placed on Injured Reserve, the source said.
The source said Harrison exhibited the behavior throughout the season, but players really started to notice Harrison checking out on game days after a Week 4 win over the Ravens.
Dupree said on his weekly radio show Wednesday night that Harrison showed no interest in mentoring him or rookie linebacker T.J. Watt.
“I don’t know how many secrets about the playbook Harrison could give to [the Patriots] because I never saw him in meetings,” said Dupree, according to host Paul Zeise.
Bill Parise, Harrison’s agent, said Saturday that the parting was amicable, but Harrison was “clearly” frustrated over his role in the defense.
Pouncey spoke strongly about the responsibility of a longtime Steeler to carry out what’s best for the team, including mentoring young players.
Watt and Dupree — both first-round picks — replaced Harrison on a full-time basis this season. When asked whether Harrison was a mentor to him, Dupree laughed while walking out of the interview scrum.
“We’re going to speak the truth. That’s what it is,” Pouncey said. “I want [backup B.J. Finney] to be the best offensive lineman. If he comes and takes my position, it is what it is. … I’m not going to complain about that. I’m very thankful for everything. I’m a man about everything. Any time I messed up, every time I never did anything, I stood up to everybody and told them. It is what it is. I’m not going to run from no one.”
This is a strange ending to Harrison’s career in Pittsburgh. He spent all but one of his 15 seasons with the Steelers, making five Pro Bowls and winning two Super Bowl rings and a Defensive Player of the Year award. Teammates had lauded Harrison’s ability to lead by example.
Safety Mike Mitchell said Harrison is a friend, but he added about Harrison’s going to New England, “I probably wouldn’t have done it for $59,000.” Harrison is due $58,823.50 in Week 17 salary. Playoff games are paid by share.
Harrison said there was “a little hesitation” in signing with the Patriots, but the Steelers never reached out to him after waiving him.
“I cleared waivers, New England had called and said they wanted me to come up, and we talked,” Harrison told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Wednesday. “At 4:30 that afternoon, I flew to Boston, and there was no communication from the Steelers about anything.”
Harrison added that he expects to play in the Pats’ regular-season finale against the Jets on Sunday, but he has not been asked “one thing” about the Steelers since joining his new team.
Asked whether Harrison became a locker room distraction toward the end, Pouncey sent a message to the pass-rusher.
“I don’t care. Bye. Have fun,” Pouncey said.