Harrison Was A Key Veteran Addition

Part Two Hungry Veterans: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick apparently told Rodney Harrison during their initial visit last year, "I need you on this defense."

The plea was successful and Harrison proved that Coach Belichick knew what he was talking about, as Harrison quickly became a team leader in both on-field performance and overall character.

With the Patriots, Harrison, a 10-year veteran and one of the league's best safeties over that period, finally achieved the ultimate football glory with the team's impressive victory in Super Bowl XXXVIII. But what was special for Harrison was the pay-off for long years of toil. The realization of his professional dream after many seasons when it looked very far away culminated in an emotional outpouring after the game: Harrison wept openly.

And he was not the only one. The Patriots peppered their roster this season with choice selections of veterans: players who were among the league's best at their position, but who also had not achieved much team success and therefore had the deep-seeded hunger to win. Coach Belichick assembled a group that would

Harrison led this pack but he was far from alone. With him came defensive tackle Ted Washington and fullback Larry Centers.

Ted Washington

If anyone wonders why the Super Bowl game against Carolina, which saw the two teams score a record 37 points in the fourth quarter, opened up so much in the second half, look no further than the huffing and puffing linemen on both sidelines. NFL.com's Pat Kirwan explains: "I went down on the field at halftime for the last minute and a half, and what was obvious to me was the level of fatigue for linemen on both sides of the ball for both teams. Hopefully the long halftime helped them. They looked dead."

Patriots receiver Troy Brown made the same comment, that the defenses for both teams were exhausted by halftime. With both Tom Brady and Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme consistently sliding around in the pocket or rolling out of it entirely, the linemen were worn out by chasing them down.

But nothing was going to keep Ted Washington from his first chance at a ring. The mammoth defensive tackle showed that he was in much better condition than his body shape would indicate on first glance. He earned some rest though, when his early success in helping to stop the Carolina ground game forced the Panthers to all but abandon the run and switch to the pass: Carolina finished the game with just 16 rushing attempts to 33 pass attempts despite entering the game with one of the league's best running attacks.

Washington barely registered on the stat sheet, with just one pass defense to his name. Yet he was the critical component in the Patriots' run defense, occupying multiple blockers every time he was on the field and allowing his defensive ends and linebackers to make great plays. The Panthers tried seven runs in the first quarter for a total of 21 yards, or 3 yards per carry, but they also completed just one of eight passes for one yard. Combined with a 9-yard loss on a sack, the Panthers were practically going backwards.

Washington has almost always been this dominant. It has been his fame and his curse, as he has been outstanding while playing for mediocre teams.

Like Rodney Harrison, who played in a Super Bowl as a rookie in 1994 with the San Diego Chargers, it seemed early on that Washington would be a part of consistent success. Washington was a first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 1991, a team that had won a Super Bowl in 1989. Washington started all 16 games as a rookie on a team that went 10-6. They were 14-2 in 1992 and lost in the NFC Championship game both that year and in 1993.

Washington was close to a Super Bowl, but he broke his leg in the conference championship in 1993 and left the 49ers following that season. He missed San Francisco's Super Bowl victory (over Harrison's Chargers) in 1994. Instead, he spent a year in Denver with a 7-9 Broncos team.

He then joined the Buffalo Bills, but just one year after their last Super Bowl appearance (a record string of four straight, but all were losses). The Bills went to the playoffs in 1995 and 1996 but lost in the first round in 1996 and again in 1998 and 1999. He left after an 8-8 2000 season for the Chicago Bears, who went 13-3 but again lost in their first playoff game that year. The Bears fell to 4-12 last year and the then-34 year old Washington was staring towards the last few years of his very good career, one that saw him play in four Pro Bowls in 13 years, without much hope of any further playoff success.

When the Patriots came calling last summer, Washington did not exactly see them as his savior. Washington was unhappy with the trade at first, because he felt the Bears had handled it poorly after he had given them good years and thought he had found his career's last station.

But New England was struggling to determine who would be the team's defensive tackle in their preferred 3-4 scheme. A pre-season game against the Redskins revealed just how much struggling the Patriots had yet to do, as the Redskins rolled up 131 yards on the ground against the Patriots and could have had more but for 13 penalties.

Just two days after that game, the Patriots traded for Ted Washington. Never had a fourth-round draft pick brought so much so quickly to the team. He instantly upgraded the interior of the New England defense and shored what had been a weakness against the run.

But he also demonstrated that his skill is matched by his quiet work ethic, and he rapidly became a stalwart leader for the Patriots. A broken leg suffered in week three against the Jets kept him out of six straight games yet he still managed to be one of the defense's most valuable players. With Washington in the line-up, the Patriots fielded the best scoring defense in the league, yielding the fewest point of any team in 2003 and pitching three home shut outs. The only player to rush for 100 yards against the Patriots did so with Washington out of the lineup.

And now he has his ring. After years when the early promise in San Francisco seemed a distant memory, he has reached the heights.

Larry Centers

At least Ted Washington had played in several playoff games and two conference championships before finally reaching and winning a Super Bowl. Larry Centers wasn't even that lucky before this season.

He began his career with the then-Phoenix Cardinals in 1990. Perhaps he should not have expected much as a 5th-round draft pick out of Stephen F. Austin. But the Cardinals struck consistent lows in the league, failing to have a winning season until Centers was in his fifth year and even then the best the team could manage was an 8-8 record. They finally managed to go 9-7 in 1998 and win a wild card playoff game but lost in the next round. The same thing happened when Centers left Arizona for Washington in 1999, and the Redskins went 10-6 but lost in the second round of the playoffs.

Centers did not see a winning season again until he came to New England. He left Washington for Buffalo after the 2000 season and promptly hit a new low with the Bills winning just three games. The Bills actually let Centers go after their 8-8 2002 campaign.

Through all this malaise, Centers managed to make a name for himself as one of the best in the game. In fact, he is the best when it comes to receptions for a running back: no player has caught more balls out of the backfield in NFL history than Larry Centers. He managed to go to three Pro Bowls despite the limited spotlight he received on poor teams. He has 615 career carries for 2,188 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, but he has 827 career receptions for 6,797 yards and 28 touchdowns though the air. Those numbers could very well earn him a place in the NFL Hall of Fame.

It will be interesting to see if he goes into Canton as a Patriot, now that he has won a ring with New England. Yet he barely made it through his first (and possibly only) year with the Patriots (he mentioned before the Super Bowl that he might retire should New England win it; a nice sentiment but it was the only example, and a dangerous one, of a Patriots player looking beyond the big game before Super Bowl XXXVIII).

Like Ted Washington, Centers was hurt this year, and he only played in 9 games. The team actually cut him in October as part of an injury settlement rather than place him on injured reserve and lose him for the season. The team re-signed him in December and he played every game thereafter through the Super Bowl. He did not show in the Super Bowl statistics, but he had one rush and one catch in each of the team's two playoff games leading up to it. Centers's 28-yard catch-and-run against Indianapolis helped set up a crucial third quarter field goal.

Through it all he brought class and professionalism along with his skills to the Patriots. But most of all, like Harrison and Washington before him, he brought a hunger bordering on fanatical passion to finally have success in this league. Harrison signed as one of the league's most sought-after free agents; Washington came somewhat unwillingly through a trade; and Centers landed in New England when few others would have him, thinking the 13-veteran was finished. All three came to New England differently but approached their time with the Patriots in the same way: this would be their chance to win it all.

Now that New England has given them that chance and followed through on the promise to three focused and hungry veterans, it will be interesting to see how many other free agents around the league take a long look at New England in this and future off-seasons. Coach Belichick has built a remarkable program and players anxious for a taste of success might be eager to follow in the footsteps of Harrison, Washington and Centers.

It was certainly special to see long-time Patriots like Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson, and Adam Vinatieri, who made up the nucleus of the team dating back to their 1996 season-ending Super Bowl loss to Green Bay, win another title. But it was all the more poignant to see Harrison, Washington and Centers rise from years of drudgery to the ultimate prize.

Congratulations to the veterans of the 2003 New England Patriots.

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