Covering the Patriots, you know you have to keep your head on a swivel. Any time of year, any time of day, no matter how serene things seem, chaos is a phone call, email, text or – now – Slack message away.
This is why when one of my co-workers starts a conversation with, “You see the (fill in player name here) news?” the needle on my anxiety meter pins and I say with great irritation, “Tell me what it is and I’ll tell you if I did.”
There’s no need to go through all the moves since January of 2000 but the one that started it all – the one that trumps them all – was the release of Lawyer Milloy.
Nobody was ready for the player who was the William Wallace of the 2001 Super Bowl champions to get cut five days before the 2003 opener. But cut he was. And the man that made Milloy replaceable – Rodney Harrison – will go into the Patriots Hall of Fame this summer.
I talked to Rodney Harrison on Quick Slants the Podcast about coming to the Patriots, why and how he beat out Milloy and the awkwardness of the days after Milloy was cut.
The stage was set for Harrison to become the back-line enforcer Milloy had been in the first days of training camp.
“When I was released from San Diego, I was pissed off,” said Harrison. “When I came in I was going to hit everything that moved, I was going to make my presence known. I didn’t care if Lawyer Milloy or who was there. (I didn’t care) if it was Willie McGinest or Kevin Faulk coming up and telling me calm down.
“I’d say, ‘Nahhh, I can’t calm down because I’m on a mission.’ That was all part of me,” Harrison continued. “Then I got to the point where Willie McGinest said, ‘OK, Rodney, we respect you. We know that you can play. We respect you. You can’t knock (out your teammates during practice).’ I said, ‘OK, I’m good now.’ "
Did Milloy know that he was in a competition for his job?
“I don’t really know because Coach Belichick basically said, ‘You guys work it out, who’s gonna play left safety and right safety. Whatever you guys wanna do.’ I felt we did do things similar but I felt I had the edge in one thing over Lawyer. I could cover. I felt I was a better cover guy than Lawyer. I covered tight ends, Tony Gonzalez for years, Shannon Sharpe so I knew I was a great cover safety, I could cover tight ends and guys in the slot and I think that’s what Belichick saw as the difference between us.
“Lawyer was a great, great safety,” Harrison reminded me. “He was a very emotional leader, he made big plays in some of the biggest moments, but when I came in I knew I had to up my game and show some leadership and show the intensity I’d showed in San Diego for nine years.”
As it happened, Milloy was released, the Buffalo Bills signed him and that Sunday the Patriots opened the 2003 season in Buffalo. New England got blasted 31-0.
“Yeah it was an awkward time especially because they came out and kicked our butts,” said Harrison. “You had (ESPN analyst) Tom Jackson on television saying, ‘Coach Belichick lost his guys.’ But all that did was give us a level of focus that we needed and it propelled us. We went 14-2 that year.”
Milloy wasn’t just a safety and a teammate, though. He was a person who laid himself bare on the field and off. He was very close with Ty Law, Tom Brady, Willie McGinest and so many other key players after being a Patriot since 1996.
“It was tough initially,” Harrison said. “But I had a conversation with Tom and some other guys and said, ‘Hey, Lawyer is no longer here,’ and I was like, ‘Hey, OK I’m the guy replacing Lawyer. I’m about to take my game to the next level.’ And that’s when all hell broke loose. I just went out there and played reckless. I played free, I had fun, I had great players around me, I didn’t feel like I had to do everything which was sometimes the case out in San Diego. You always felt like you had to do everything. When I was with the Patriots, I felt like I could do my job and do it more efficiently because I didn’t have to worry about doing everything.”
Any time you get Harrison on the line, you know you’re going to get high-energy conversation and some great anecdotes. Which is why you get him on the line in the first place. Give a listen to the rest of it right here.
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