Patriots Report: In Rod We Trust

<p>Wondering about the Patriots secondary against the big recivers on the Pittsburgh Steelers? Who will make the plays that matter when it comes down to crunch time. One player might stand out. Certainly his reputation stands out. It's hard to believe the Chargers let this guy go.</p> <p>Darren Kelly takes a look at the Patriots verteran Safety, Rodney Harrison and wonders how the team ever got along before his arrival.</p>

PHOTO: New England Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel (22) is congratulated by teammate Rodney Harrison (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

In Rod We Trust
By Darren Kelly, Site Contributor

Bill Belichick: "Am I glad we got you."
Rodney Harrison: "Thank you for taking a chance on me."
Bill Belichick: "We've got one more game."
Rodney Harrison: "Yes sir."

- Exchange just after the Patriots defeated the Colts in last year's AFC Championship game.

That post-game conversation, caught on film as the Patriots coaches and players were celebrating their huge win, was an intriguing look into the character of Rodney Harrison: his joy at joining one of the best teams in the league; the importance that his coach places on his role on the team; and his commitment to the ultimate goal, winning the Super Bowl.

The Early Years

Drafted out of Western Illinois in the 5th round by San Diego, Harrison's rookie season (1994) included a trip to the Super Bowl (a 49-26 loss to San Francisco). Playing in 15 of the Chargers' 16 games, Harrison led the team in special teams tackles. Two seasons later, Harrison had worked his way into the starting lineup, beginning a stretch of 53 straight games played.

Following the 1997 season (during which he became the first player in NFL history to score touchdowns on an interception return, a fumble return, and a kickoff return in the same season), Harrison established himself as the leader of the San Diego defense. For the second straight year his teammates voted him Defensive Player of the Year after he led the team in INTs in '96 and tackles in '97. In 1998, he earned his first of two Pro Bowl selections.

The 1999 season showed just how valuable Harrison could be to his team. The Chargers started the year 4-1, but Harrison suffered a shoulder injury in the fifth game and was sidelined until game 16. The Chargers lost 6 straight after losing Harrison, finishing 8-8. Harrison ended the year tied for eighth on the team in tackles even though he played in just 6 games.

After three more productive seasons for San Diego (missing just 5 games and receiving his second Pro Bowl nod), the Chargers released Harrison due to salary cap reasons. The Patriots, displaying a foresight that many other teams lacked, signed Harrison to a six-year, $14 million contract.

The Bad Reputation

One reason other teams may have been leery of taking a chance on Rodney Harrison is the reputation he gained over the years of being a dirty player. In his career he has been fined over $300,000 (more than any player in the history of the league). The fines were the result of various late, helmet-to-helmet, and other illegal hits. A Sports Illustrated poll of 354 former and current players published in October, 2004 named Harrison the league's dirtiest player.

This reputation has also affected Harrison when it comes to Pro Bowl voting. This year he was named an All-Pro in voting done by reporters, but when Pro Bowl selections were announced (voting is down by players, coaches, and fans), Harrison's name was strangely absent.

"A lot of guys were saying to me how can you make All-Pro and not make the Pro Bowl, and I just don't know," Harrison said. "All I know is I go out there and try to play football and give my heart and soul, and whatever happens in terms of individual accolades, that's up to others to decide. "I'm not bitter because even if you don't vote for me, you're going to respect me. That's my attitude."

The league's fines haven't stopped since Harrison joined the Patriots. He was fined on three separate occasions this year: $7,500 for hitting Arizona quarterback Josh McCown out of bounds; $7,500 for spearing New York Jets receiver Santana Moss; and $12,500 for spearing Miami tight end Randy McMichael.

But not everyone seems to take offense to Harrison's all-out play. McCown was involved in one of ESPN's humorous segments hosted by Kenny Mayne (the "Mayne Event") earlier this year. The piece focused on the fines Harrison pays. Since the league donates the fines to charity, McCown appeared in the piece saying, "when he hits you, you know he's just doing it for the kids." Harrison himself appeared in the piece, showing that he too has a bit of a sense of humor when considering his reputation in the league.

And just as it is with many players who are perceived as "dirty," sometimes it depends what side of the ball you're on. The Chargers always considered Harrison one of their team leaders. And now the Pats players and coaches seem to agree.

"Rodney Harrison is a jewel," defensive end Willie McGinest said. "I've always admired him from afar by watching him at San Diego. But you really don't appreciate the things that he does [until] he's doing it with [you] on the field."

"He's been our leader since day one," Patriots outside linebacker Mike Vrabel said.

Glad we got you

Since joining the Patriots, Rodney Harrison has enjoyed back-to-back 14-2 seasons, one Super Bowl victory, and now stands one win away from another Super Bowl berth. And he has been an integral piece of the "Homeland Defense," all along the way.

During last year's championship run, Harrison started all 19 games, led the team in tackles, and helped bring a badly needed swagger and toughness to a team that began the season in turmoil. When Bill Belichick decided to cut Lawyer Milloy just one week before the first game of the season, Harrison was one of the lone bright spots during a 31-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills. He collected a team-high 11 tackles in his New England debut.

While many outside the organization wondered how the Patriots would recover (including ESPN's Tom Jackson, who said that the Patriots players "hated their coach"), Harrison and other veteran team leaders helped pull the team together, setting the tone for a successful season.

In the first game of last year's playoffs, Harrison had a key 1st Quarter interception as the Patriots defeated the Titans 17-14. In the AFC Championship Game, Harrison intercepted Peyton Manning in the end zone on the Colts' opening drive. He also forced a fumble with a crushing hit on Marvin Harrison and ended up with 10 tackles as the Pats prevailed 24-14.

In the Pats' 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Harrison sacked Jake Delhomme on a key 3rd down play in the 3rd Quarter, and finished with a team-high 9 tackles. He even was credited with a tackle after breaking his arm. After getting to his feet even with the intense pain in his arm, he couldn't get off the field as the Panthers were running their hurry-up offense. Delhomme connected with Muhsin Muhammad, and Harrison pushed him out of bounds before heading to the locker room.

This year, Harrison has been even more valuable. With key injuries to Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, and a host of rookies or out-of-position players in the defensive backfield, Harrison has been the on-field leader for the secondary, once again playing in every game, and once again leading the team in tackles.

Harrison also displayed his off-field leadership by calling out Colts' kicker Mike Vanderjagt prior to last week's Pats-Colts playoff game. Vanderjagt had said on a radio show that the Patriots were "ripe for the picking."

"He should focus on making his field goals and not worrying about what we're doing over here," Harrison said. "He has to be a jerk, a Vander-jerk." In the 20-3 playoff win over the Colts, Harrison tied Tedy Bruschi for the team-lead in tackles, forced a fumble, and intercepted Manning's last pass of the game.

Darren is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"

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