Coach Mike McCarthy has no doubts about Al Harris’ ability to play cornerback.
He just won’t be playing cornerback for the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers made it official late Monday morning, releasing the two-time Pro Bowler exactly 50 weeks after he suffered a devastating knee injury against the San Francisco 49ers.
“I think Al Harris will definitely play again in the National Football League,” McCarthy said on Monday. “I have no doubts about that.”
Nor does Harris.
“I don’t know how many more years I’m going to play,” Harris told ESPN Milwaukee’s Jason Wilde on Monday afternoon, “but I do know this: This will definitely motivate me.”
Harris said he didn’t want to sound bitter by the team’s decision – saying “Green Bay was awesome to me” at one point – but he wasn’t happy that he spent so much time studying the game plan when, in his opinion, the team never had any intention of activating him to the 53-man roster. He also said he would have preferred to stay in Florida with his family rather than spending the last few months in Green Bay in a fruitless pursuit of resuming his career with the team he joined in 2003.
“Nothing shocks me after what happened with Brett (Favre),” he said.
Harris started all 102 games he played in for the Packers from 2003 through 2009. He picked off 14 passes, not including his memorable game-winning pick-six to beat Seattle in the playoffs on Jan. 4, 2004. He set a team record by breaking up 28 passes in 2004.
However, the severity of the knee injury and his age – he’ll turn 36 on Dec. 7 – conspired against him. From the Packers’ perspective, more went into the decision than just Harris’ ability to be a situational cornerback for their improving defense. McCarthy praised the growth of young cornerbacks such as Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee, and said special teams played a role in the move.
“It was a tough decision,” McCarthy said. “Al Harris played top-notch football for us over the years with over 100 starts. We evaluated the decision week to week. This is a big-picture (decision) overall – I’m talking about the future. My future is against Minnesota (after the bye). That’s the future I’m talking about. I’m not talking about next year. We feel this is the best path for us.”
Harris and safety Atari Bigby, who had spent the first six weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list, began practicing on Oct. 19. By Thursday, Harris began to get an inkling that he might be released rather than activated, and, sure enough, on Saturday, the Packers decided to activate only Bigby for Sunday night’s game against Dallas.
At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, McCarthy said the team had made its final decision to part ways with Harris.
“I thought Al did a tremendous job throughout his rehab,” McCarthy said. “As far as getting into an evaluation, I thought he progressed throughout the three weeks (of practice). It was important for him to get back on the field, get into the football movements, the competitive drills, the ability to tug and pull in open space and things like that. I thought he did an excellent job getting himself back in shape. This is not a physical decision. This is a big-picture roster decision.”
In Harris’ absence, Tramon Williams has taken the next step in his career to become a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback. With Williams’ growth, Harris would have been battling undrafted rookie Sam Shields to be the third corner. Shields generally has been solid, and he made his first career interception against Dallas.
However, the Packers are one injury to Charles Woodson, Williams or Shields away from having to endure a possible repeat of last year, when the Packers’ beat-up secondary was picked apart by Pittsburgh in the regular season and Arizona in the playoffs. Apparently, McCarthy thinks it’ll be different this time if Lee, Underwood or Jarrett Bush are thrust into major roles on defense.
“I think we have a little experience in getting players ready to be the next guy up,” McCarthy said. “It’s part of any season. We looked at everything involved. We looked at the development of all the players, particularly in the secondary, from the beginning of the season until now. We feel very good about the progress we’ve made individually as a unit in the secondary and most importantly the defense.”
So now, Harris is looking for a new employer.
“I had a blast in Green Bay,” he said. “Got to meet some interesting people. Got to play with Brett, Aaron Rodgers, who’s probably going to be a Hall of Famer. I got to meet some really good people: Tausch (Mark Tauscher), (Chad) Clifton, (Donald) Driver. It was a blast. It was definitely a blast. Didn’t think it would end like this, but this is where we’re at. Can’t cry over spilled milk. I’m glad Mike still thinks I can play.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.