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Jason Mackey: Najee Harris' offseason silence produces an unnecessary storyline for Steelers

Jason Mackey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH — This is not about a member of the media needing a quote. I've written about plenty of professional athletes without them ever saying a word and will continue to do so until I retire many decades from now.

It's also not about us being owed anything. If a professional athlete chooses not to participate with the whole player-reporter dynamic, I've never been the type to take it personally or act offended. What they do on the field remains the only thing that truly matters.

At the same time, we can talk about the value in these exchanges, no?

Media has long been a conduit through which fans ascertain how they feel about a particular team or player, and when it comes to Najee Harris, this is one of those times where it would've been better for him to communicate what's in his head to the outside world.

Harris declined to talk during OTAs or minicamp. He hasn't spoken since January, when the Buffalo Bills ousted the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC wild-card round. Several reporters have asked. Harris has maintained that he'd rather wait until training camp to field questions.

It's his right to do that, but ... why? Seems like an unnecessary amount of fuss, an artificial storyline created, if everything is fine.

At the same time, it's fair and essential to report what others have said about Harris and his place on the team. Those sentiments can be conveyed in what Russell Wilson told us on the first day of OTAs.

"He's learning every play," Wilson said. "He's asking questions. If he's not here, he's texting and asking, 'What was this? What was that?' He's just a great teammate and a guy who really wants to win."

Mike Tomlin said Harris' absence on Tuesday of this week was excused. A day later, the Steelers downplayed the significance of Harris' limited work during the mandatory three-day minicamp.

"You guys know my approach, man," Tomlin said. "Cam Heyward didn't take any snaps [Wednesday], either.

"I know a lot about some of those guys. I know less about some of these others. And so, I like to focus my energies on those that are working and not those that are moving out of the way at times to see others."

Put another way, those who know Harris the best — his coaches and teammates — have zero concern about the running back being ready for the 2024 season.

That's great, obviously. But I still don't understand declining to stamp out what could be perceived as a negative storyline heading into an important campaign for him personally and the Steelers as a whole.

Harris' silence during offseason workouts created a distraction that the Steelers do not need, an elephant in the room that doesn't have to exist.

By choosing not to address reporters and publicly react to the Steelers declining to pick up his fifth-year option, there are surely fans who will wonder if Harris was upset by the entire thing, if he felt the Steelers did not show the requisite amount of loyalty given how much he has produced in his first three seasons.

Perhaps it's innocuous. Maybe Harris just wasn't feeling up to it and will convey his thoughts in a manner more comfortable for him. That's fine. But fans understandably want to hear from a player who's a huge part of what this team can accomplish.

Without that, they're left guessing. They can only speculate on whether deep down Harris might be harboring a grudge against the Steelers for not backing him contract-wise.

It's reasonable to think that animosity could linger — and Harris could ultimately choose to leave, despite general manager Omar Khan saying on the radion station 93.7 The Fan on Thursday that the team remains interested in possibly signing him to a deal beyond this current one.

 

Again, we can only report and react to what's out there.

At the same time, there's also plenty that has literally been left unsaid, the thoughts of a running back who might have a reason to be agitated, his standing with the organization beyond 2024 unclear.

For a team in the Steelers' place, it's unnecessary. There are bigger goals ahead, things like winning a playoff game for the first time since after the 2016 season, achievable through the Steelers running the ball effectively in Arthur Smith's offense.

"Really excited to get the work of [Harris and Jaylen Warren]," Smith said this week. "I've been following [them] this spring, getting to know both of them well off the field."

Added Warren: "We did our thing last year. Why not keep it going? We're only going to elevate it from here."

We can certainly assume Harris sees a fit alongside Warren, that he thinks the Steelers will score more points than they did last season, and he's not in hurry to leave town.

But the same as any type of communication, whether it's with your kids or professional athletes, it's often best to articulate feelings and avoid ambiguity.

From a football perspective, it's entirely possible Harris has been working through something injury-wise. He missed the first day of minicamp and was a limited participant the other two. It's also, for about the 1,000th time, football in shorts.

Is he hurt or preserving his body for the grind of an NFL season? We won't know the truth until late July, when the Steelers reconvene in Latrobe. It's also not a big deal.

The opportunity missed involves many on the outside forming opinions based on Harris' actions, which leave the door open that maybe he's not entirely thrilled by the path the Steelers have chosen.

But again, Harris can do as he pleases. It doesn't change my job or that of anyone else who writes or talks about the team. Similarly, I'd think and hope his teammates don't feel different about him behind closed doors, so long as he continues to run hard and break tackles.

The unfortunate reality, though, is that it's an opportunity lost.

Harris is highly intelligent, a fascinating dude and a terrific talker. He can eloquently deliver messages and frame how things are viewed on the outside. Not only that, Harris has perspective on league matters such as offseason workouts or an expanded schedule, not to mention how the Steelers offense has evolved or how this team-building process may have differed from others that he has seen.

This part of the routine understandably matters less than running the ball well, which Harris has certainly done: the only NFL running back to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards each of the past three seasons, averaging 326 total touches in those campaigns, plus eight runs of 20 or more yards in 2023 (fourth in the NFL).

Knowing how hard Harris works and how much he puts into this, plus the unique path he's traversed, there's so much that he could offer the outside world through what he says.

My hope and belief is that Harris understands what the Steelers did. I also don't believe he truly feels the Steelers have a lingering problem with discipline, as he brought up likely out of frustration after that Bills loss. Any issues with the team not picking up his option will more than likely be addressed through his play.

Which is why I hope that things change when training camp arrives and Harris allows everyone the chance to understand what's going through his brain.


(c)2024 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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