The New England Patriots promised last year that in building their 2003 team, they would get younger, part of an effort to increase team speed and athleticism.
But there is no substitute for experience, and the Patriots were happy to embrace savvy veterans over raw youthful talent. New England ended up having the oldest roster in the league this year, with 20 players over the age of 30.
These veterans were critical to the team's success and for some of them, it was their first taste of ultimate success. Rodney Harrison, Ted Washington, and Larry Centers rank among the best at their position in the game today, yet none had a coveted Super Bowl ring until they came to New England.
There was perhaps no more important free agent acquisition for any team in the league this year than Rodney Harrison.
Harrison is one of the league's best strong safeties and certainly one of the game's most violent hitters. His all-out style has earned multiple league fines over the years, as well as the grudging respect of fans and fellow players; although perhaps they are too grudging, since the media voted him to the exclusive All-Pro team but incredibly he did not make the more inclusive Pro Bowl because those fans and fellow players refused to vote for him.
Harrison sets a tone with his play on the field both for the defense and for opposing offenses. His teammates' comments confirm that he can single-handedly elevate the attitude and performance of his squad. Because he was new to the Patriots this summer, he was not voted a team captain in training camp. But by the start of the season, he had become so endeared to his fellow Patriots that team co-captain Richard Seymour approached head coach Bill Belichick and asked if Harrison could be added as another co-captain. That gave Harrison a leader's title in name that he already had in fact.
Harrison had been to a Super Bowl before, in his rookie year with the San Diego Chargers. But they were destroyed, 49-26, by the mighty San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. As the Chargers went through the rocky seasons that followed, it began to look to Harrison like he would never return to the big game. The Chargers released Harrison last year, a move that surprised and angered him, but one which gave him a new opportunity.
He was expecting to join the Broncos or Raiders when Coach Belichick called and asked to see him. Whatever the coach said in that visit, it must have been spectacular, because Harrison never boarded the plane bound for Denver, instead canceling his meeting with the Broncos. New England had captured him.
Now, the 10-year veteran is at the top of the NFL world, and he is also at the top of his game. He led the team with nine tackles in the Super Bowl and added a sack and a pass defense as well. The only blemish on his Super Bowl outing was a premature exit in the fourth quarter, when he broke his right arm.
Harrison wasn't the only injury in the secondary. Fellow safety Eugene Wilson, a rookie and surprise starter who was part of the organization's attempt to add youth to the team, pulled a groin muscle while unsuccessfully chasing Carolina receiver Muhsin Muhammad on a touchdown score. Harrison and Wilson were replaced by backups Shawn Mayer and Chris Akins, both of whom were almost exclusively special teams players this year: rookie free agent Mayer played in 9 games, 5th-year veteran Akins in 12. Each had one tackle in the Super Bowl.
The versatile Patriots also used Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law at safety. Law is one of the best tacklers in the league, at one point separating Muhammad from the ball on what should have been a fumble, but was instead called an incomplete pass. When Panthers running back DeShaun Foster scored his 33-yard touchdown run, he ran away from Law's side of the field.
But this simply provided a snapshot of the Patriots' year: the team used 42 different starters this season, the most in the NFL, because of a rash of injuries, and each time one went down, someone else came in and stepped up. In some cases, players simply moved over, like Law taking some spot duty at safety or Wilson, who was drafted as a cornerback, taking over as the team's free safety in week two this season and performing very well through the team's incredible 15-game winning streak.
Now they all get to enjoy the fruits of their labor, together, but veterans like Harrison, who was weeping at times after the game, have a special appreciation for it. "I just know my arm hurts really badly, but I've got some time to heal up," Harrison said, his arm in a sling. "This has just been a fairy-tale season, and I can't sit here and put into words what I am really feeling."
Harrison's outlook on the NFL helped the team stay focused. "We never looked ahead, we always took it one game at a time," he noted. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi echoed that statement when he said that the 16-game regular season was really a series of 16 one-game seasons: each week is its own entity and all that matters at the given time. The team used this one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mentality to march all the way through the Super Bowl.
Later, we continue our look at new Patriots veteran stars with Ted Washington, Larry Centers, and others. Check back Wednesday with PatriotsInsider.com