Linebackers Ware, Harrison worthy of MVP consideration
The MVP will most likely go to an offensive player, but LBs DeMarcus Ware and James Harrison have credentials that compare favorably with any candidate, writes Greg Garber.
Slow down the video to a few frames a second and it looks like one of those clinical National Geographic documentaries; the sovereign of the Serengeti lunges with a menacing athletic grace. Manning, the hapless antelope paralyzed by an instinctive and unconscious fear, never sees him. Ware crashes into Manning's back and strips the football with a vicious right-handed chop.
It was the first play of the Week 15 game in Dallas, and the Giants managed to recover the ball. Still, a defining chemical reaction had taken place -- a message sent, and received. The Cowboys would go on to sack Manning a season-high eight times, with three credited to Ware.
Ware now has a league-leading 19 sacks. If he can register four more in the remaining two games -- against Baltimore's Joe Flacco and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb -- he would break the record of 22½ set by Michael Strahan in 2001.
Can he do it?
"I mean, at the end of the day, you've got to have the confidence you can," Ware said. "But for me, the main thing has been focusing on consistency. When guys start thinking about numbers, that's when they get complacent."
Like the Pro Bowl, the Associated Press Most Valuable Player award is a singular, subjectively individual honor. And it is almost exclusively the province of offensive players.
Quarterbacks Peyton Manning of the Colts, Kurt Warner of the Cardinals and the Saints' Drew Brees have thrown up some crazy numbers. So have Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Texans receiver Andre Johnson. Chances are, one of them will win the award.
That doesn't mean it's right.
'08 Sack Leaders
(through 14 games)
|DeMarcus Ware, Dallas||19|
|Joey Porter, Miami||17.5|
|John Abraham, Atlanta||15|
|James Harrison, Pittsburgh||15|
|Michael Strahan (2001)||22.5|
|Mark Gastineau (1984)||22|
|Reggie White (1987)||21|
|Chris Doleman (1989)||21|
Twice in the first four years of MVP balloting that goes back to 1957, defenders won or shared the award. But since 1961, only two of the 47 selections have come from the defensive side of the field -- Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971 and Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986.
There are two Pro Bowl linebackers deserving of the MVP this season.
The Cowboys' Ware has the flashy sack total (plus four forced fumbles), but he is also an every-down player with 74 tackles and might be better defending the run. Pittsburgh's James Harrison also plays outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense -- the Steelers rank as the league's best -- and has been just as disruptive a force as Ware, if not more so. Harrison's 15 sacks are good for fourth among NFL players, but he has also produced 94 tackles and shades-of-Taylor seven forced fumbles.
"That's just the first thing I think of when I get there," Harrison told ESPN's Tom Jackson last week. "I'm greedy. I'm trying to get a sack, get the fumble."
So why hasn't there been a MVP buzz for Harrison and Ware?
"Because we are not hoo-rah guys, trying to bring attention to ourselves," Ware explained. "We're quietly working hard, but if you look on the tape, you'll see we can play at that level."
Before the Dec. 7 game between Steelers and Cowboys, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin was asked to compare Harrison and Ware.
"Our guys are short, squatty, try-hard guys," Tomlin said, meaning it as a compliment. "DeMarcus is a freak of nature."
Rushing the passer, the 6-foot-4, 262-pound Ware has the burst of speed to get around the corner, sometimes untouched, and the strength to roll inside when the tackle overplays him. Ware made Seattle's perennial Pro Bowl tackle Walter Jones look silly at times. At the same time, he is a formidable run-stopper. And when the Cowboys' scheme calls for him to drop into pass coverage, Ware is more than capable. When 49ers running back Frank Gore looped out of the backfield and headed 20 yards down field, Ware actually outran him to the ball and knocked it away.
Ware was the 11th player selected in the 2005 draft, and even before he got on the field he was compared to Taylor by Bill Parcells, the former Giants coach then in the middle of his three-year tenure with the Cowboys. Ware's sack total has steadily improved, from eight as a rookie to 11½ in 2006 to 14 last season. Ware has been remarkably consistent this season, producing at least one sack in 13 of 14 games played so far.
Harrison, meanwhile, plays the game with a fury of a man wronged.
"He doesn't talk much, but you can see it in his eyes," marvels James Farrior, the other Pittsburgh linebacker named to the Pro Bowl. "That look in his eyes he has the demeanor about himself that nobody can match, an intensity within itself that nobody can deal with."
Harrison has been cut four times during his NFL career. Clearly, it took some time to learn how to channel that hurt and rage.
Playing for Kent State, the alma mater of Steelers legendary linebacker Jack Lambert, Harrison sacked Ben Roethlisberger (Miami of Ohio) five times in college, then bench-pressed an incredible 475 pounds for pro scouts, and then nothing.
He signed with the Steelers as a rookie free agent in 2002, but played just one game that season. He enjoyed a brief tenure with the Baltimore Ravens and the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe before eventually returning to the Steelers in 2004 when Clark Haggans was injured before training camp. Signed as insurance, Harrison impressed the coaches when he played a preseason game with a broken thumb, and stuck for good.
He made his mark on special teams and plays on those units of chaos to this day, something rare for an NFL star. In 2007, intent on creating a starting spot for Harrison, the Steelers let Joey Porter go. Harrison was named to his first Pro Bowl and was the team MVP.
When Harrison tackled Dallas quarterback Tony Romo for his 15th sack two weeks ago, he tied Mike Merriweather's franchise record, set in 1984.
Listed at 6-0, 242 pounds -- he might be 5-10 -- Harrison plays with a different style than Ware. His lower center of gravity allows him to get underneath the pads of the offensive tackles and more into their large frames.
"You've got tackles that are 6-5, 6-8, and it's hard for them to scoop down and get to my 6-foot level," Harrison said. "When you add in the fact that I'm actually squatting down to try and get more leverage, I think that might be a little bit of an advantage for me."
In Week 15, the Baltimore Ravens held Harrison without a sack. Maybe it was because they often employed three offensive tackles and routinely doubled him with 6-9, 330-pound Jared Gaither and 6-8, 330-pound Adam Terry.
"He has all the tools that everybody else has," Farrior said, "he's just a little bit shorter. It's unbelievable. I haven't seen anybody that can really block him, one on one."
Here is how Harrison broke down his rare one-on-one matchups with opposing tackles: "It's a combination of how fast I come off the ball with the first step and what he does. If I feel like he didn't get off far enough or back up fast enough, then I'll keep going and try to go around the corner. If I feel like he jumped out, then I'll cut back in. If I feel like he's still there with me, I may jab-step in and then come back out.
"And it just seems like nothing but bright skies, daylight, the quarterback just sitting there. The first thing I'm thinking is, 'I hope he doesn't see me.' "
And you know the rest. In agonizing, arresting slow-motion, the sovereign of the Serengeti bears down for the kill.
"We're the quiet guys, the guys before the storm," Ware said. "And then we hit you."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com