Even after he led the NFL with 381 touches during his rookie season, Harris said he's comfortable toting the rock 400-500 times in 2022 if it means the Steelers are winning games.
“I can get 500, god [expletive] it,” Harris told "The Rich Eisen Show" on Thursday. "Listen, I didn't have an issue with it. It was the media who had an issue with it. I told them every game, 'If this is the way we're winning, I can carry the load.' I train to carry loads. It's not something that I haven't done before. I did it in college, high school, in the NFL. For me to get that much carries, I was like, man, is we winning games? It was a long streak where someone was saying if I have 25 carries, then we're undefeated. So OK, this is our identity right here. Let's keep this going on, let's keep this going. Man, listen, if I get 500 carries, as long as we're winning, it doesn't really matter."
Harris referenced a June report on the Steelers' plan to lighten his workload heading into his second year after he led the all running backs with 980 snaps in 2021 — 171 more snaps than Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliot who played in the second-most snaps. Harris said on the first day of Pittsburgh's minicamp that "on certain downs, I will not be on the field."
But that doesn't seem to be the case after Harris' most recent remarks.
Earlier in the interview, Harris noted that he knows the Steelers' identity this upcoming season could feature a run-heavy offense with either rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett under center or former first-round castoff Mitchell Trubisky. Harris added he's willing to sacrifice himself if it means the quarterback and pass-catchers will have an easier time making plays.
"I'm trying to be everything I can to be a problem for the opposing team's defense so they can look at me a lot and maybe pack the box up," he said, "and we can get a lot of one-on-ones with Chase [Claypool], Diontae [Johnson] and Pat [Freiermuth] and all the other guys"
The legacy of the 400-carry running back
While Harris' selflessness is admirable, history isn't kind to those who take on that type of responsibility.
Only four running backs have carried the ball at least 400 times in one season: Larry Johnson, Jamal Anderson, James Wilder, Eric Dickerson and Eddie George. Johnson's 416 carries in 2006 are an NFL record, but he was never the same after that season. Johnson tallied just 535 carries in 37 games over the next five years and was out of the league after 2011. Anderson, who rushed 410 times in 1998, lasted just three more years and only one full season. Wilder, who set the NFL record for most touches in a season with 492, played six more years, but only one with at least 400 touches.
Dickerson and George were two outliers: Dickerson had four more years with at least 300 touches, while George enjoyed three more seasons as a bell-cow before his final season in 2004.
But Harris isn't just a stud in the backfield. He tied the NFL for most running back targets with 94 and led the league with 74 receptions. That makes his situation even more complicated given what happened to Christian McCaffrey the past two seasons. The Carolina Panthers star hasn't been healthy ever since he finished the 2019 season with 403 combined touches — 298 carries and 116 receptions.
The Steelers should know better than to wear down a star running back, too. They famously did it with Le'Veon Bell in 2017 before he took a year off in search of a lucrative contract. He touched the ball 406 times that year and never looked the same even after his year-long hiatus. Now, he's gearing up for a boxing match against Adrian Peterson on July 30. Do the Steelers really want to ruin another promising player in Harris?
Could Harris break the mold?
The biggest advantage Harris has is his age. He just turned 24 and only has one year in the NFL under his belt so far. Every other player who rushed for more than 400 yards in a season did it after they turned 26.
Eisen also compared Harris to Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, in that both went to Alabama and both are noted workhorses. Henry led the league in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns from 2019-20, including a league-high 397 total touches in 2020. However, even Henry succumbed to injury this past season when he broke his foot. Perhaps because of overuse, perhaps because of inevitability.
But Harris dispelled the Henry or Alabama comparisons. For him, it's not about anything but himself. And only certain players can do what he does.
"It's a Najee thing," he told Eisen. "The more carries you get, the better you are. You get a more feel for the game. You get a better understanding of how defenses are playing. You wear them down. I guess it's just a dog mentality. You gotta be a dog to do that."