June 03, 2009
Strong Safety Not So Strong Anymore
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
In truth, Rodney Harrison's arrival in Foxborough was the first sign that Lawyer Milloy was a goner.
When Harrison left San Diego after being dumped for salary reasons and found his way to New England, Patriot fans were salivating. First of all, how in the world could the Chargers be so stupid in letting this guy go? Second, and most important, with a safety tandem of Harrison and Milloy, a return to the pinnacle of the NFL seemed certain.
Well, they got back to the pinnacle. Harrison's first two seasons as a Patriot produced some beautiful bling at season's end. But the ironic twist is that they won both Super Bowls with Harrison, but not with Milloy.
Not everyone was looking at this deal and thinking "Wow, what a safety tandem this will make!" For one thing, both Milloy and Harrison were strong safeties. Tebucky Jones, once a symbol of Bobby Grier drafting non-smarts, was the starting free safety on the team which won Super Bowl XXXVI. But Jones had been traded to New Orleans (for the draft pick that would eventually become Corey Dillon), so the free safety spot was open. But the thought of Harrison or Milloy playing free safety didn't sit real well, considering that Harrison was more of a heavy hitter and Milloy was lousy in pass coverage. But both men could quarterback a secondary with the best of them.
Then on September 1, 2003, Harrison became the unquestioned strong safety on the team. Milloy was released in what was at the time an earthshattering event. Tom Brady was nearly in tears when the news media asked for his take on Milloy leaving, and Brady wasn't even a defensive player. Milloy was signed literally the next day by Buffalo, and four days later was in the starting lineup at Ralph Wilson Stadium for the Bills against, naturally, the Patriots.
The resulting 31-0 pasting the Bills laid on the Patriots seemed to signal a new era for the Patriots, and it did, but not what fans and experts might have foreseen. Instead of the Bills entering an era of dominance, it turned out to be the high water mark in the Buffalo careers of both Drew Bledsoe and Milloy. The Patriots paid the Bills back at season's end with a bookend 31-0 win at Gillette Stadium, nailing down the one seed and paving the way to a win in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Harrison said on an NFL Films documentary of that season that his team "stunk", using instead a more colorful version of that adjective, when describing his feelings towards that season opener against the Bills. Since then, Harrison took hold of the secondary, helped with the conversion of Eugene Wilson from cornerback to free safety, called out all the assignments for the defensive backs, and the Patriots went on to win Super Bowls in each of Harrison's first two seasons. Harrison's real worth to the Patriots, as well as possibly another harbinger of how things would work out with he and Milloy, was best explained when the team voted him a defensive captain right off the bat.
Harrison retired from the NFL and the Patriots on Wednesday, and he will continue his relationship with the league through broadcasting duties at NBC. Harrison, who helped out on coverage with the last Super Bowl, will join the Football Night In America show (along with former Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy) and offer the same kind of hard-hitting commentary which defined his entire career.
And if you have spent a lot of time watching Harrison play, you can expect some comments which will deliver similar crunching hits on NBC.
Harrison, a fifth round draft pick in 1994 by the Chargers out of Western Illinois, made an impact on the Chargers almost immediately. His rookie season was marked by a stunning 17-13 win by the Chargers at Pittsburgh in the 1994 AFC Championship Game, only to see Steve Young and the 49ers run roughshod over the Bolts in Super Bowl XXIX, 49-26. In finally escaping the shadow of Joe Montana, Young threw for a Super Bowl record six touchdown passes. But it was Harrison's defense which had to withstand the sting of such an offensive onslaught.
Harrison spent the bulk of his career building a reputation for himself, and sometimes that reputation took a hit, no pun intended.
Harrison was always known for his hard hits, and sometimes he wound up getting the worst of it instead of his opponents. Harrison, according to a Globe article, was fined upwards of $200,000 in his career for excessive hits and such. He was suspended for one game in 2002 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Oakland's Jerry Rice. He was a Pro Bowler only twice in his career, which, according the Globe article, may have been a sign that he was viewed as unpopular around the league because of his alleged "dirty" hits.
Harrison always claimed that he was "passionate" and not "dirty". The best way to back up that claim is to look back at Super Bowl XXXVIII and explore perhaps the biggest reason Patriot Nation should love this guy forever.
We take you to a two-play sequence in the fourth quarter. Carolina receiver Steve Smith caught a left sideline pass for 22 yards. He was covered by Tyrone Poole, but Harrison delivered a bone-crunching hit to Smith in midair, knocking him out of bounds. Unfortunately, the only bones crushed were those of Harrison, who broke his forearm on the play.
There was no time for Harrison to get off the field, so Harrison had to play one play with a broken forearm. Jake Delhomme tried another left sideline throw to Smith, but Ted Washington was there to cover the play. So was Harrison, who ranged all the way to his right and threw himself at Smith, making sure he would not catch the ball. Harrison landed in agony on the Patriot sideline, and only then was the training staff finally able to assist Harrison.
He had his arm put in a splint and was escorted off to the x-ray room. But Wilson would also eventually leave the game, as on the next series he pulled a hamstring trying to cover Muhsin Muhammed on an 85-yard touchdown pass. With the game tied at 29 in the waning moments and with the Patriots forced to play Shawn Mayer and Chris Akins at safety, Harrison had to sneak out of the x-ray room, himself still in uniform and his arm still in a sling, and watch the game from the sideline. He wanted to be out there, not in some room watching on a TV.
The Patriots won, 32-29. The images of Harrison celebrating his first Super Bowl title are indelible. He had tears streaming down his face. The proverbial "tough guy" was bawling his head off, right in front of all those NFL Films cameras. Mr. Tough Guy was reduced to a crying baby boy, having finally achieved his dream of winning a Super Bowl. All Harrison did that day was reveal his true persona: He really was passionate and was not dirty, all the while being one tough and rugged player.
One might wonder how much longer he would have gone on playing with that broken forearm, if he had to. Leadership issues aside, that, and not all those alleged dirty hits, is the real Rodney Harrison.
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