Let’s get it out there right off the bat: James Harrison is never going to make it to the Hall of Fame.
That’s not an insult. It’s not a criticism. But it is the likely end result of his professional playing career. I’m not offering an opinion about whether or not I believe that the former Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rusher should or deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but I find it very unlikely that he will in fact end up there.
Not entirely dissimilar to another Steeler that many diehard fans insist must get into the Hall of Fame in Hines Ward, Harrison’s career statistical output for his era simply doesn’t match up to Canton standards. In contrast to Ward, however, he was certainly the best player at his position for a period of time, and his true productivity period came in a relatively short window in spite of a long career.
But he wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan type like Gayle Sayers. The fact that he spent a decade and a half in the league is representative of the fact that he was only at the height of the game for a relatively brief period of his career, but from 2007 to about 2010 to 2011, there wasn’t another edge defender that I would have chosen over him.
He seemed at the time to have placed himself on a late-career trajectory that could end up with him receiving a bust of his likeness, but that is where things began to go awry. Between 2007 and 2011, Harrison put up 54 sacks and forced 27 fumbles with four interceptions, recording 437 tackles. He was elite in every facet of the game: rush, coverage, and run defense.
But his production trailed off after that. Harrison recorded nine sacks in just 11 games in 2011, but he would never have more than the six sacks he recorded in 13 games during the following season, after which the Steelers released him because he would not accept a pay cut.
He would play one season with the Cincinnati Bengals after that before retiring, only to see his career resurrected when Pittsburgh called upon him to step in for the injured Jarvis Jones later that year. From that point on he would never return to full-time starting snaps until the end of the 2016 season, but it was by then too late.
He may have continued to supply a few highlights in the twilight of his career between 2012 and this past season, with the sack of Alex Smith while still with the Steelers this past season being a fitting bookmark to his career, but he would never return fully to his Hall-of-Fame-worthy form.
It doesn’t help his case that he spent his first several seasons as an afterthought, bouncing from team to team, and even continent to continent, before sticking as a special teamer in 2004. He had an excellent career, and one that it could be reasonably argued that is worthy of enshrinement. But that is not likely to be the end he will receive, even if I would like to be wrong.