GREG GARBER: Why Harrison's return is more pivotal
James Harrison is paid to hit people.
This image, as one of the game's dirtiest players, will follow him into retirement, and ultimately, will probably be his epitaph. It's too bad, because his extraordinary effort at the end of the first half in Super Bowl XLIII -- despite what my esteemed colleague Ian Connor would have you believe (see below) -- might have produced the greatest play in league history.
The Arizona Cardinals appeared to be headed for a 14-10 halftime lead. All quarterback Kurt Warner had to do was zing a short slant pass to receiver Anquan Boldin. It should have happened; the Steelers were caught in an all-out blitz and Boldin would have been open. But Harrison -- whose responsibility on the play was to cover running back Tim Hightower -- dropped into a pick play being orchestrated by Boldin and fellow wideout Larry Fitzgerald. Warner never imagined that Harrison would be there when he let the ball go.
Harrison caught it and began his way, tentatively, down the right sideline. He gained momentum and somehow lurched his way all the way to the goal line. Fitzgerald hit him, but Harrison's knee landed on the Cardinals' receiver and Harrison plunged into the end zone as time ran out in the half. Three Cardinals touched him along the way, including Warner. It was a 100-yard interception return, the longest touchdown in Super Bowl history. It was a breathtaking play that seemed to get better on each replay.
Watching it two years later, in real time and slow motion too, it's still hard to believe.
With all due respect to the Giants' Eli Manning and David Tyree, this was a more meaningful play in the context of the game. Instead of trailing by four points, the Steelers found themselves up 17-7, a swing that ultimately turned the game. Technically, Ben Roethlisberger won the game 27-23 with a 6-yard pass to Santonio Holmes, but the Steelers later acknowledged that Harrison's play was more impactful.
"That's the difference in the game," said Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. "I can honestly tell you. We had a defensive touchdown. They didn't."
The Manning-to-Tyree play was a terrific piece of work, but it required the cooperation of a passer -- plus the inexplicable inability of the Patriots' defenders to tackle an immobile quarterback -- a receiver and a safety (Rodney Harrison) who whiffed on the ball.
Harrison, the youngest of 14 children, a player who was cut four times (three by Pittsburgh), did this virtually by himself. And, unlike the Giants' players, he is not paid to catch the ball and run; he was, in fact, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. Another consideration: If Tyree doesn't make that top-of-the-helmet catch, the Giants had another down and some clock to get the ball down the field.
This was an 18-second masterpiece that will never be reproduced.
IAN O'CONNOR: Why Tyree's catch is more pivotal
With the ball high in the desert air, floating like a child's runaway balloon, David Tyree was not exactly a pending Super Bowl hero out of central casting.
A few years earlier, the New York Giants' reserve receiver and special-teamer had nearly killed his career with booze and drugs, and here he was standing under Eli Manning's third-down heave, clean and sober and yet apparently unworthy of the moment.
Tyree had managed four lousy catches for 35 lousy yards all season, and his touchdown earlier in Super Bowl XLII was his first of the season, allowing him his requisite 15 minutes of fame. On top of that, Tyree had been dreadful in practice just two days earlier.
"He dropped everything in sight," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Balls were ricocheting off his helmet."
Only this ball would not ricochet off Tyree's helmet. In fact, this ball would defy the laws of gravity and common sense by sticking to Tyree's helmet.
And that is the essence of why Tyree's 32-yard catch with 59 seconds left in the Giants' epic 17-14 victory over the previously unbeaten New England Patriots is a more significant play than James Harrison's 100-yard interception return in Pittsburgh's victory over Arizona the following year.
Tyree rose high and caught the ball with his head. That's right: He caught the ball with his head.
Linebackers had intercepted passes before. Linebackers had taken those interceptions on long, winding touchdown runs before.
But no receiver had ever caught the ball with his head before.
This isn't to marginalize Harrison's breathless romp into history -- it stands among the greatest of all Super Bowl plays.
It just isn't the greatest.
When Harrison was done zigging around half the Arizona roster, and zagging around the other half, few in the crowd would have bet their lives that the Cardinals were done, beaten, cooked. In fact, Arizona took the lead in the fourth quarter.
But the moment Manning made like father Archie and Houdini'd his way out of a collapsing pocket, broke free from Adalius Thomas, Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour, and found Tyree at the Patriots' 24, every man, woman and child watching -- Bill Belichick and Tom Brady included -- knew the 18-0 Patriots were destined to end up the 18-1 Patriots.
As Rodney Harrison mauled him on descent, Tyree pressed the ball against his skull with his right thumb and fingertips, but not his palm; he didn't even have a preferable grip. The receiver landed on top of the safety's legs, pawed at the ball with his left hand, and somehow prevented it from bouncing into the ground.
New England's demise was suddenly a matter of how and when, not if. Four plays later, Manning found Plaxico Burress in the end zone for what Giants owner John Mara would call "the greatest victory in the history of this franchise, without question."
Weeks after his mother had suffered a fatal heart attack, Tyree dedicated his own immaculate reception to "my angel up in heaven." Asked to explain his catch, Tyree said, "It's all supernatural. Some things aren't meant to make sense. They just happen, and you let them happen, and you don't ask any questions."
My gifted colleague, Greg Garber, still believes the Tyree catch doesn't measure up to the James Harrison return, even though Harrison's heroics came at the expense of an Arizona team that had lost seven games, or seven more than the 2007 Patriots.
Given that Greg is among the more astute tennis thinkers of his time, I'll put this argument in his court. Picking between Harrison and Tyree is like picking between Federer and Nadal.
Only this match is being played on clay, and my guy is Nadal. It's not even close.
As for anyone else looking to compare these Super Bowl plays, I would suggest doing exactly what David Tyree did. Use your head.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com.