Who can forget the look on Matt Hasselbeck’s face as Al Harris runs by him to clinch the “we want the ball, and we’re going to score” game in the 2003 playoffs. Fast forward 7 years and the Packers have released the pro bowl corner and he is now playing for the Miami Dolphins. As is often with nostalgia, it often clouds judgment; no one wants to remember the bad, so we typically only remember the good. People wanted to keep Aaron Kampman, a fan favorite, even though he never managed to transition into a 3-4 OLB; in the end both parties recognized that it was in the best interest for Kampman to leave for free agency (and he seems to be doing fine with 4 sacks in Jacksonville). Hopefully in this article I will set out a rationale for why it was in the best interest of the Packers and Al Harris for him to be waived.
1. Age: probably the most important factor for the Packers. At age 35 Al Harris is already a decade older than the average NFL player and like running backs, corner backs typically do not get better with age. Older players often lose their top end speed as well, and Harris was never that fast to begin with so it only compounds the problem.
2. Injury: A complete knee reconstruction is a devastating injury, especially for cornerbacks that have to rapidly change direction and plant in order to defend wide receivers. Usually players are never the same after such an injury and it was quite obvious that Harris was having difficulties recovering. Given that he had 3 weeks to compete for a spot against at worst Brandon Underwood or Pat Lee and you can tell how bad it must have been. Harris has come back from some pretty crazy injuries (namely the ruptured spleen), but a ruptured spleen is much different from a ruptured knee.
3. Play style: Al Harris was a very good bump and run cover cornerback; this was great during the times with Bob Sanders, but not as effective for a Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense. In the Capers’ 3-4 defense, cornerbacks are asked to sit 5-10 yards back from the wide receiver and trail and react instead of bump at the line of scrimmage to reroute wide receivers. Add in the injury, his age and his speed and its debatable whether or not Harris would have been able to adjust.
4. Position: Charles Woodson is Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams may in fact be playing better than him. Obviously Williams’ development into a potential pro bowl corner has a lot to do with Harris being released. Assuming that neither Woodson nor Williams is moving to make room for Harris, Harris becomes an option for either the nickel or dime back. Again neither position is suited for Harris. Bumping a receiver off a route isn’t as important when going against slot receivers since the patterns are so short and quick anyways. Finally teams like nickel backs to be young developmental players so that they can get some experience without being too much of a detriment to the team. Tramon Williams was that player until he became the starter and Sam Shields has taken his place so far. In the event that Harris did take over for Shields as the nickel back Thompson’s fear probably was that it would hinder the development of Shields, who is looking like a player who could reach his full potential.
5. Contract: Assuming that he’s looking at either the nickel or dime back spots and it becomes obvious that his contract makes him expendable, especially in the eyes of Ted Thompson a notorious penny pincher. The problem continues next year, do you continue to pay Harris starting corner back type of money even as he’s the nickel or dime back or do you cut him?
6. Leadership: Many fans have argued that the Packers need veteran leadership on such a young team. My feeling is that players can’t lead the team from the sidelines, and the Packers have been without Harris for almost a year at this point and have looked fine. Add in the fact that Charles Woodson is the reigning defensive MVP of the year and Nick Collins is a perennial pro bowler and I think you have enough stability in the secondary already.
7. Attrition: Perhaps the only reason to keep Al Harris would in case either Woodson or Williams becomes hurt. Presumably either Harris or Shields would take over as the starting corner with the other taking the nickel spot. Without Harris in the lineup, either Brandon Underwood or Pat Lee would rotate in and it becomes debatable whether or not Harris would outplay them. My feeling is yes, but the Packers are limited in roster space and presumably they felt like all the other factors outweighed this one pro for Harris.
In the end, the Packers decided to waive Al Harris, much to the surprise of the fan base as well as Harris himself apparently. There has been much news that Harris felt a little cheated that leadership was leading him on by giving him tape to watch and a gameplan to understand before letting him go. I actually see it a little differently; the Packers were only doing their due diligence up to the point that they decided to waive him; every day brings a new situation in the NFL and there might have come a point where a cornerback gets hurt or something else happens where Harris stays with the team. What I think would be worse is if the Packers didn’t give Harris tape to watch and a gameplan to understand; that would have shown that they weren’t even going to let you compete for your spot and had already given up on you.
I also think that the Packers might have done him a favor by releasing him mid-season; had the Packers just thrown Harris onto IR and then released him in the off season, he would have had to compete with other free agents, where he would become a lot less attractive due to his age and his injury. By releasing him mid season, he gets more attention than he would have in the offseason since there are many teams (as it turns out the Lions, Vikings and Dolphins) who are desperate for a cornerback. Add in the fact that there may not even be a free agency next year if the owners and players union can’t agree and Harris’ release allows him to play now, show that his knee is fine and look for a bigger contract next year. Finally, due to his age and health concerns it was unlikely that Harris would have not cleared waivers so he then gets to pick what team he would like to play for. Most fans joked and secretly hoped that he wouldn’t go to the Vikings, but really who would want to jump into that mess without being vastly overpaid? If the fans and media can see the organization falling apart, imagine what it must look like to players and people in the NFL who have more information.
So in the end, like with Aaron Kampman, it was in the best interest of both the Packers and Al Harris to part ways. I always liked Harris as a player and I wish him the best in his future endeavors in Miami (and secretly happy that we’ve already played the Dolphins)