I'm spending 50 days ranking the top 50 players of the Bill Belichick Era, from No. 50 down to No. 1. (Click here for a criteria on how I made my selections.)
Today we reach . . . .
NUMBER 11: RODNEY HARRISON
Years With Patriots: 2003-2008
Playoff Games: 9
Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2003, 2004), All-Pro (First team, 2003; Second team, 2004)
The 2001 Patriots won a Super Bowl as a pack of gritty overachievers. They weren’t ready for what awaited in 2002 and they weren’t good enough to withstand every team’s best shot.
In 2003, they imported Rodney Harrison from San Diego.
The strong safety spent nine years playing with a ferocity that was right at the edge of propriety . . . and sometimes past it. When he got to New England, he was hungry in a way they 2001 Patriots may have been. He felt disrespected by the Chargers. He felt like he had something to prove. On the second day of training camp, he demolished Troy Brown and poked him in the eye. Brown whipped the football at him. A couple of days later, he hammered Brown again, then went head-high on Kevin Faulk. He and Matt Light grabbed facemasks after that and tussled and Tedy Bruschi came off the top rope to enter the fray. Everyone’s focus -- and intensity –-- had gotten a turbo shot courtesy of Harrison.
I’m not sure what direction the Patriots franchise would have taken if it hadn’t added Harrison. But Bill Belichick gave an indication. After the AFC Championship Game takedown of Indianapolis -- just before the Pats won the Super Bowl by beating the Panthers, a game in which Harrison broke his forearm in the fourth quarter (and played another play, making a tackle after breaking it) -- Belichick embraced the veteran safety and said to him: “I sure am glad we got you.”
Harrison played 16 games in each of his first two seasons in New England, then, due to injuries and age, was only able to play a total of 31 regular-season games over his final four. But his performances in those first two seasons were the catalysts for both titles. He had four interceptions in the 2004 postseason, including an 87-yard pick-six against the Steelers and a game-sealing pick in the Super Bowl against the Eagles. He had seven picks in his nine postseason games for the Patriots.
When Harrison announced his retirement in June of 2009, Belichick said, "In the biggest games, in any situation and on a weekly basis, his production was phenomenal. Rodney embodies all the attributes coaches seek and appreciate: toughness, competitiveness, leadership, selflessness, hard work, intensity, professionalism -- and coming from Rodney, they are contagious."