Harris unheralded no more

Nobody was taken aback on Thursday when Walt Harris was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November. Except the 11th-year cornerback himself, that is. "It's a great honor and I was surprised when I was told about it," Harris said. And who can blame him? It's the first time in Harris' career he has been recognized by the NFL for performance. But Harris is flying under the radar no longer.

He simply has been too good for too long this season for the rest of the league not to finally step up and take notice.

Harris played well enough to be a candidate for this honor in September, and his month of October was highlighted by a career-high three-interception game against Oakland in Week 5. But there was no denying the smooth veteran after the way he performed while leading San Francisco to a 3-1 record during November.

Harris had 19 tackles, five passes defensed, three interceptions and one forced fumble during the month, finishing November with two tremendous efforts in a win over Seattle (three tackles, two interceptions) and a loss at St. Louis (six tackles, three passes defensed). In the St. Louis game, he also had an interception and a fumble recovery he returned 50 yards for a touchdown nullified by penalties.

Harris now leads the NFC with a career-high six interceptions - he ranks third in the NFL in that category - and also leads the 49ers this season with 10 passes defensed and three forced fumbles. He's fifth on the team with 56 tackles.

Joining the 49ers as a free agent in March after being released by the Washington Redskins, who somehow came to the conclusion Harris no longer was of starter quality, Harris quickly was inserted into San Francisco's starting lineup at right cornerback. He has emerged as the team's best defensive player so far this year as the 49ers head into the final quarter of their season.

Despite several strong seasons with the Chicago Bears and playing well as a starter in two seasons at Indianapolis, the unheralded Harris never before has won any kind of conference or league-wide award.

He has become accustomed to the snubs. Even though Harris is quick to admit he's in the midst of the best season of his career, he was caught off guard a bit by the NFC honor, which typically goes to players on teams enjoying good seasons.

"When your team isn't doing well, a lot of the statistical things don't get recognized," Harris said. "People always say the main consideration is winning games. To get that kind of recognition (with) where we are right now definitely means a lot. But my main thing is really just to help this organization win."

Harris is the first San Francisco player to earn defensive player of the month honors since tackle Dana Stubblefield in November of 1997, the season Stubblefield was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

In praising Harris, 49ers coach Mike Nolan noted that the cornerback has been responsible for a lot of his success this season on his own.

"It's certainly well-deserved," Nolan said. "He's done an outstanding job. I was surprised to read that the last defensive player (of the month) here was Dana Stubblefield, the year B.Y. (Bryant Young) was taking all the double teams. Walt can't say that (winning the award) was because he had the guy on the other side (helping him) and all that."

The next few weeks will be the real test to see how much Harris has emerged in the NFL consciousness and how much appreciation and respect from his peers he really has earned this year. The NFC Pro Bowl team will be announced Dec. 19, and Harris appears to be one of San Francisco's leading candidates to earn a berth on that squad. The 49ers didn't have a representative in the Pro Bowl last season for the first time in 25 years.

Harris never has been named to the Pro Bowl.

"I may have had one or two years that had (Pro Bowl) potential because of my stats," Harris said. "But you have so many good corners around the league that are doing well and they're winning. Any person would want (a Pro Bowl berth). That was one of my goals before my career is over, to be able to make it to the Pro Bowl and just live up to my expectations."

Being the NFC's reigning defensive player of the month when final Pro Bowl voting is tabulated later this month certainly won't hurt Harris' chances.

"I hope it helps," he said. "It's good timing. I'll just be happy if it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. But I definitely would like to achieve something like that."

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