Tomlin allowing Harrison to practice daily at training camp
For more than two weeks last summer at his 11th training camp at St. Vincent College, it appeared as if James Harrison never was going to actually participate in a practice. This year in Latrobe, however, has been much different for the Steelers’ veteran outside linebacker.
A regular sight over the first 11 training-camp practices in 2015 was Harrison in a full, heavily-fleeced gray sweatshirt and pants running sprints on his own on an auxiliary field. Harrison’s attire suggested he was not only defiant toward the sometimes-unforgiving late-July and early-August heat but of coach Mike Tomlin’s decision to keep the then-37 year-old former NFL defensive player of the year out of pads and away from team drills.
“I’m gonna protect him from himself,” Tomlin said after the first camp practice last year.
So Harrison – and fans and media – were forced to wait for his practice debut.
And wait and wait and wait.
It wasn’t until the 12th practice at St. Vincent that Harrison made an appearance.
It’s been a far different story this season.
While several veterans have sat out full practices at times – including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who twice has been held out – Harrison hasn’t been one of them.
Even Tomlin on Friday talked about his desire to “preserve some people… Just that time of year where we’re giving people days off.”
But yet day after day, the familiar gold No. 92 pinnie has been roaming Chuck Noll Field. Harrison on Friday made it 7-for-7 in terms of practice participation during this training camp.
“Everything picks up when 92 is on the field,” Tomlin said after finally clearing Harrison to practice last year.
To put Tomlin’s change in philosophy regarding Harrison from last year to this year in perspective, if the coach had waited until the 12th practice of this camp to free Harrison to practice, he wouldn’t be making his debut until Aug. 14 – almost three weeks into camp.
Make no mistake, Tomlin isn’t unleashing Harrison at full-bore. His reps are far fewer than what are being given to younger and less-established players, both in team and individual drills. He also left one practice early because of a minor ankle injury.
But Harrison, in a change of tact from last year, has apparently earned the trust of Tomlin that he doesn’t need “protected from himself” at the age of 38.
Harrison missed just one game last season because of injury and played the most snaps of any of the team’s outside linebackers (55 percent of the team’s total). He’s entering his 14th NFL season, his 13th with the Steelers and third since coming out of retirement a month into the 2014 regular season.
Harrison is embroiled in a dispute with the NFL over whether the league needs to interview him, as it desires, in connection to a December Al-Jazeera report that implicated him in alleged use of a banned performance-enhancing substance. In part as a result, Harrison has avoided speaking to the media, cutting off his lone session with local reporters last Sunday after less than a minute because he was asked about “the PED thing,” as he put it.
“I’m all right,” Harrison said when asked how he felt during practices this camp. “I mean, I can always be better.”