The Hall of Fame case for James Harrison

Of the 28 players to be named as semifinalists for the 2023 NFL Hall of Fame class, former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison might be one of the most intriguing cases on the list. 

He was a dominant player during his prime, but it was also a very short-lived prime. Does he check all of the boxes for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

His career numbers do not always jump off the page nor do they compare to some of the all-time greats. He is not one of the NFL’s all-time sack leaders, nor is he near the top of many defensive categories. 

A lot of that is due to the fact that he was a late-bloomer, bouncing around the NFL as a special teams player and not getting an opportunity to be a full-time starter until he was already 29 years old. 

As a result, his prime as a full-time player was very short. 

But it was also as dominant as any pass rusher and defensive player during his era. In some ways he is kind of like the Terrell Davis of defensive players. Davis was a superstar running back for the Denver Broncos after being an afterthought in his draft class, and for four or five years was one of the top players in the league at his position, helping lead his team to a pair of championships. 

That is very similar to the path Harrison took. He was undrafted, an afterthought early on and then dominated for five years before quietly fading away. 

There is something to be said for durability and a lengthy career, but there is also something to be said for dominance. And the NFL Hall of Fame tends to reward dominance over short bursts (Davis, Gale Sayers, Kurt Warner all come to mind as players whose prime years were limited but were easy Hall of Fame choices). 

The best argument for Harrison’s candidacy is the five-year run between 2007 and 2011. During that time Harrison won the defensive player of the year award, made four All-Pro teams (including two first-team selections) and was the backbone of a dominant Super Bowl winning defense (which was his second Super Bowl ring). 

During that Super Bowl he made one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history with his 100-yard interception return for a touchdown just before halftime of the Steelers’ 27-23 win. It was one of the most impactful plays in league history. It was the difference in the game and at least a 10-point swing in a game his team only won by four points. 

Harrison has some strong competition from other linebackers and edge rushers on this semi-final list (Patrick Willis, London Fletcher, Zach Thomas, DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen). While several of them may have had longer careers and accumulated more counting totals, few of them were ever as dominant and game-changing as Harrison was for that five-year stretch. 

It might not be enough to get him in this year, but two Super Bowl rings, a Defensive Player of the Year award and one of the most iconic plays in Super Bowl history might be enough to eventually put him in Canton among the NFL’s all-time greats. 

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