On October 17, 2010, the NFL changed. Dramatically. And it happened in roughly 15 minutes of real time, with a trio of devastating, and illegal, hits: Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather on Ravens tight end Todd Heap; Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson on Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, and Steelers linebacker James Harrison on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.
Coming less than a year after the NFL’s Congressionally-sparked concussion epiphany, the bang-bang-bang of these bang-bang plays forcing the NFL to make major changes. Specifically, the league immediately beefed up the enforcement of rules against blows to the head and neck of defenseless receivers.
The league also fined Meriweather $50,000, Robinson $50,000, and Harrison $75,000.
Harrison complained about the fine at the time, suggesting that he may retire. He didn’t. But something else, according to him, did happen.
Appearing on the Barstool Sports “Going Deep” podcast (via TMZ.com), Harrison claimed that coach Mike Tomlin had a gift for Harrison.
“I ain’t gonna lie to you, when that happened, right?” Harrison said. “The G-est thing Mike Tomlin ever did, he handed me an envelope after that. . . . I ain’t gonna say what, but he handed me an envelope after that.”
It could have been $75,000. It could have been the after-tax net of the $75,000 that Harrison lost. It could have been any amount, if it indeed happened. Harrison says it did. NFL rules are clear that fine amounts must come from the player who is being punished, with no reimbursement from the team or anyone else.
Obviously, there are two sides to the story. But why would Harrison lie? He’s not a disgruntled former employee trying to stick it to Tomlin. Harrison possibly got a little too comfortable and a little too candid about the events, without realizing the potential consequences.
Bolstering the possibility that Harrison didn’t realize the minefield into which he was walking is the fact that Harrison believed it was a legal hit. So too did Tomlin and team owner Art Rooney II.
“I think the play was a legal hit,” Rooney said at the time. “It’s on the borderline, though.”
Harrison also said that, if he’d known he was going to lose $75,000 for the infraction, he would have gotten his money’s worth.
“Listen, on everything I love, on my daddy’s grave, I hit that man with about 50 percent of what I had and I just hit him because I wanted him to let loose of the ball,” Harrison said. “If I had knew they was gonna fine me $75,000, I would have tried to kill him.”
In early 2012, the NFL suspended Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and coach Sean Payton for a full year, due to a bounty program that culminated in specific offers of cash for clean, legal hits during the 2009 postseason that rendered opponents unable to continue. There was never a suggestion that Williams or Payton or anyone else paid any player for a hit that was deemed to be illegal. If Harrison is telling the truth, that’s precisely what Tomlin did.
The Steelers have not responded to a text message from PFT seeking comment on the matter. The NFL separately has declined comment.
Given that the incident predated the bounty scandal — and in light of the fact that the NFL poured cement into an obvious rabbit hole of proof that other teams had done the same thing — chances are the NFL won’t poke around at a long-healed scar.
Still, Harrison said what he said. And if the league does nothing about it, others like (Williams and Payton) have reason to be curious at a minimum.