By Jason Keidel
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Among his many mantras and achievements, former Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey is credited with the maxim that it’s better to trade a player a year or two before his decay is complete than a year or two after.
Such a sports coda has its uses, particularly if you are indeed trading said player and not just releasing him, as you can get useful players in return for an athlete who lives largely on rep more than on his reps.
But no such logic applies to the Jets, or at least their treatment of their stalwart linebacker, David Harris, who was frigidly dumped by the only team he’d ever known, a team Harris represented with class, humility and all-world production. Harris had no posse, no rap sheet, no complaints and thus the team had no worries. In return for his decadelong service, the Jets swept him off the roster like a freshly cut toenail.
The great franchises are always turning over their rosters, one eye on the present and another on the future, with neither on the past. While it’s our job, or at least our joy, to reminisce and romanticize the legends and legendary moments, it’s the job of the men who acquire them to know when to get rid of them, always with the objective hardness of a mortician.
The truly great baseball, basketball and football men, like Rickey, like Jerry West, like Bill Belichick, have less time for romance, are naturally wired for the fast lane, not memory lane.
Belichick thinks Harris is good enough to play — heck, some say he will start — for the Super Bowl champion Patriots, who just signed the linebacker to a modest, two-year deal. But he’s not good enough for a 5-11 team that hasn’t played in a Super Bowl since Woodstock.
The Jets purged their best players this offseason. Joining Harris was their top-flight wide receiver duo of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, All-Pro center Nick Mangold and future Hall of Fame cornerback Darrelle Revis, leaving a gridiron carcass in their wake. (But at least Gang Green signed Spencer Paysinger!)
Perhaps the purge was necessary, or some mutation of it. But did Harris really have to go? Was he such a financial anvil around the team’s neck? Was he so horribly unproductive? Harris had at least 113 tackles every season except his second, which was truncated by injury. He also played all 16 games his last eight seasons, except last season, when he played 15. The Jets really couldn’t afford $5 million over two years — which is all New England offered — to keep one of the rare franchise-type players they actually drafted and developed?
Harris also penned a letter to the team and the town, thanking his coaches, colleagues and fans. How many players are that classy, caring and consistent? Harris is exactly what all NFL clubs look for. So, naturally, the Jets had to get rid of him. And, of course, the Pats had to snag him.
Even if a player doesn’t live up to the back of his baseball/football card, he still has value, to the town and to the team. His influence on new and young players, many of whom were in college last year, can’t be understated. Retaining Harris was not just a symbol, but also a gesture that they not only care a little about winning but also about those who helped them win. Harris played like a star yet carried himself with the low-key regularity of someone whose job security was never assured. This isn’t just about Harris the player, but also what he represents — all that’s good about the NFL. And the fact that the Jets want no part of that, or him, says the rest.
Some say the signing was little more than corporate subterfuge, one of Belichick’s ways to tweak his former employer. Nonsense. He does that every year by beating the Jets on the field, off the field and by winning the AFC East every year since the facemask was invented.
Last week, the White House offered Jets owner Woody Johnson some ritzy gig, ambassador to England or some such. Since the NFL is always pining to put a club in London, maybe Johnson’s Jets can follow him. Whether they play in East Rutherford or Old England, New England will put their yearly pounding on Gang Green, with David Harris gleefully leading the way.
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