As the Patriots bumbled and fumbled away their divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos last January, there was one man on the sideline that could have righted the ship and made a difference if he were in the game. Unfortunately Patriots safety Rodney Harrison's 2005 season was cut short by a torn ACL in Week 3.
While some people will pine for the possible return of All-Pro cornerback Ty Law to the defense and others will have concerns over the high-profile departure of linebacker Willie McGinest, Patriots fans should look forward to seeing the number 37 roaming the defensive backfield in 2006. And they're going to need him.
When Harrison went down last season, the defense lost its edge. The Patriots were among the lowest in the league in interceptions (10 picks in 2005, down from 20 in 2004).
The loss of Harrison was immediately felt during the first Harrison-less game against San Diego in Week 4. Eugene Wilson and Guss Scott could not fill the void. Neither safety made much of a positive impact in the 41-17 blowout loss to the Chargers. Scott was pushed around by San Diego tight end Antonio Gates on a 38-yard completion down at the Patriots' 1-yard line that set up the winning touchdown in the third quarter. And Wilson, who drew a 44-yard pass interference penalty, did not appear to direct traffic as efficiently as Harrison had done.
"I think his absence had to be significant," Chargers' coach Marty Schottenheimer said following the game. Schottenheimer coached and cut Harrison after the 2002 season. "I think the loss is huge. He brings an intimidating presence to everything that goes on in the secondary. That guy back there is a force."
In the first eight games without Harrison, opposing quarterbacks scorched the Patriots for 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. Five times the quarterback had a passer rating of 112.1 or more.
Thanks to some lineup changes - making rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs a starter and converting free agent cornerback Artrell Hawkins into a strong safety - and the successful return of linebacker Tedy Bruschi from an off-season stroke, the Patriots improved its pass defense down the stretch. However, by season's end, it was too late and the damage had already been done. The Patriots' pass defense ranked 31st in the league, yielding 231.4 yards per game. Their third down defense was just as poor, allowing a 42 percent conversion rate (29th in the NFL). And perhaps the most telling statistic was the lack of turnovers forced - just 18 in all and only 10 interceptions.
The Patriots not only lost its defensive edge, but they lost an emotional leader. Only Rodney Harrison could have replaced fan favorite and the heart and soul of the 2001 Super Bowl Champion Patriots, Lawyer Milloy.
Harrison had a lot to prove his first year with the Patriots. He was simply cut by San Diego, claiming the 9-year pro was washed up. Harrison made his presence felt by hitting popular wide receiver Troy Brown in a scrimmage surprising some onlookers during his first Patriots training camp in 2003. With Milloy gone before the start of the season, Harrison was made captain of the defense and back-to-back Super Bowl Championships followed.
Tom Brady gets the glory for the victories, but don't underestimate Harrison's worth. With Harrison sidelined during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XXXVIII with a broken arm, the Carolina Panthers were able to pass the ball at will against the Patriots.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Harrison appears to be on the road to recovery now. According to the Boston Globe in March, Harrison has been working out at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro regularly. He told the Globe that his faith will get him back on the field in 2006.
As Harrison lay on his back on Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in week three of the 2005 season holding a torn ACL, many football experts thought this could be the end for the 12-year pro. But Harrison said it himself. He's "hungry" to come back
"That's the thing that keeps me level, hungry, grounded," Harrison said. "Even through adversity, my faith has remained strong. I truly believe that you don't grow as much when things are fine. You grow through trials and tribulations, becoming a stronger person. That's what has happened to me. I'm at that point."
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-Material from wire reports, Scout.com and PatriotsInsider.com archives was used in this article.