Top Five Dynasty Defenders Who Excelled With Belichick & New England Part Two

July 15, 2022
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Today we’re going to be going over the career of Rodney Harrison, my pick for number four on this list and arguably one of the hardest-hitting defenders of all time.

Number Four: Rodney Harrison, Safety

Rodney Harrison was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, 145th overall in the 1994 NFL draft. He had a solid yet unspectacular nine-year career with the Chargers, starting 97 games from 1996-2002. He earned two pro bowl nods during his tenure, one of them accompanied by an AP1 spot in 1998. In February 2003, Harrison was released by the Chargers and was quickly signed by the Patriots two weeks later on a six-year contract. He was named a defensive captain before the 2003 season started, essentially replacing Lawyer Milloy who was released On September 2nd for declining to take a pay cut.

The change of scenery and ensuing 2003 season would prove to be an excellent decision for Harrison and the Patriots, as they would go on to win Super Bowl 38. Rodney’s first Super Bowl ring in his ten-year career was the second Super Bowl victory in just three years for the Patriots. Belichick was awarded coach of the year in addition to Rodney earning the second All-Pro first team of his career, along with a fourth-place finish in Defensive player of the year voting.

The future commentator and the rest of the Bill Belichick-led Patriots would incredibly go on to win the Super Bowl again the year after that in 2004. This championship was the 8th and most recent example of a team winning back-to-back championships and only the second time a team’s ever won three Super Bowls in four years. These eight teams are essentially all of the best NFL dynasties, and it makes me think back-to-back championships should be essential criteria for determining if a team is a true dynasty. It makes way too much sense. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that.

The Patriots received a first-round bye in the wild-card round of the playoffs in both seasons after going 14-2 in both years. The six playoff games the Patriots played from 2003-2004 would cement the Patriots as a true dynasty and arguably the best team in NFL history. Most Patriots excelled in this time frame, and Rodney is no exception.

Harrison managed to put together what could be considered the best six-game span of playoff games ever by a defensive back in those years, even faced severe adversity in 2004 in the wake of fellow starting DB Ty Law’s season-ending injury.

He was dominant in his first two years with the Patriots. He was the league leader in tackles amongst defensive backs in both the 2003 and 2004 regular seasons and was the overall leader in tackles in both ensuing postseasons. In addition, he made his presence known as one of the league’s hardest hitters, a man the opposition feared because he wasn’t afraid to take a cheap shot and lay down the most significant hit he could whenever he got the chance.

He was voted the dirtiest player in the NFL on multiple occasions but still maintained enough likeability to pursue a career in commentary once he had retired. He was indeed a one-of-a-kind personality and player. So now, let’s break down some of the playoff games I mentioned before.

2003 Divisional Playoffs: Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots

This was the coldest game in Patriots history. It was 4 degrees on January 10th, 2004, when the Patriots and Titans collided at Gillette Stadium. The game was close, with a final score of 17-14. Rodney had five tackles, one deflection, and a critical interception that set up one of the Patriots’ scoring drives. In games this close, one turnover can be a difference. You take the interception and ensuing TD drive away, and the Patriots lose. This was by no means a legendary performance, but it was still underrated.

Super Bowl XXXVIII: Carolina Panthers @ New England Patriots

Super Bowl 38 was played indoors at Reliant Stadium in Houston, the Pats’ first playoff game of the year that wouldn’t take place in a giant refrigerator. Rodney had another decent game despite the Panthers throwing three touchdowns and 323 passing yards.

Rodney would finish this game with a team-high nine tackles, including one sack, one forced fumble, and a broken arm he sustained during the Panther’s last offensive drive. However, he showed remarkable toughness and dedication by staying on the field the following play (not sure why? maybe he thought he would cost his team a penalty or injury timeout? let me know on Twitter if you know). He even made another tackle with his arm already broken.

This was a fascinating and underrated Super Bowl that the Patriots won late in the fourth quarter with a successful two-pt conversion a few drives before a last-second, game-winning field goal. Final score Patriots 32 – Panthers 29. Rodney had an infamous picture of him after the game enlarged and framed for one of his walls. In the image, his arm is in a sling as the victory confetti rains down, and he struggles to contain his emotions. He explained why he did this by saying, “Tears are flowing down my face and my arm is broken, it signifies my career and life. There was so much pain and hard work”.

2004 Divisional Playoffs: Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots

This playoff game was an eerily similar snowy rematch of the previous year’s AFC championship game between Indy and New England. But, Harrison says, “It was just the best game plan we’ve had since I’ve been here.” It certainly shows in the final score of 20-3. With Ty Law on injured reserve, the defensive backfield looked a lot different this year, and Harrison had adjusted to take on more coverage responsibility.

These early Patriots were constantly shifting their tendencies around surprisingly to catch opponents off-guard, and this season is an excellent example of that. Rodney finished the game with ten tackles, one deflection, one forced fumble, and one end-zone interception that was essentially the nail in the coffin with five seconds left. This game is famous for the legendary “cut that meat” chant heard throughout Gillette, mocking Peyton Manning’s silly Mastercard commercials of the era.

Peyton was shut down and unable to score a TD for the first time that year after throwing for 49 touchdowns in the regular season (at the time, the fifth-highest scoring team in NFL history). Nevertheless, the performance was so commendable that Belichick was quoted as giving his guys “the highest praise” which turned out to be this quote I found from Belichick after the game: “They played very well. There’s nothing magical. They rushed them. They jammed them. They tackled them. They covered them”.

Highest praise indeed. Rodney had helped his team shut down a top-five all-time offense in another awe-inspiring game and a fourth consecutive playoff victory for the Rodney Harrison-era Patriots.

2004 AFC Championship: New England Patriots @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Even though the game was in Pittsburgh this time, the Patriots brought their terrible weather with them, and at game time, the recorded temperature of 11 degrees was the 2nd coldest game in Steelers history. The Steelers came into this game 15-1 amid an impressive 15-game winning streak led by rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger. It looked like a challenging road game against another historically good opponent, but the Patriots were still 3 point favorites.

The Patriots were up 24-3 by halftime and ended up winning this one 41-27 in what felt like a lopsided victory. After the game, Harrison is quoted on the topic of Roethlisberger, saying, “He had happy feet and wants to run to throw, and sometimes he lobs it up. We knew we could make some plays on the ball against him.” Plays were indeed made against him, including an 87-yard interception return for a TD by Harrison.

The Patriots forced four turnovers on the night, and Rodney Harrison would finish the game with a team-high 12 tackles, one deflection, one forced fumble, one interception, and the first and only playoff TD in his career.

Roethlisberger summed up the Patriots of this era ideally after the game, saying, “We saw a lot of things from them. They did a little bit of everything. They threw the book at us.” This game was much closer to something you might consider a legendary performance for Harrison. These statistics seem even more impressive, assuming the defense wasn’t at full strength due to injuries.

These defenses were all-time great, and Rodney was the heart of them. In his first five playoff games with the Patriots, he was Undefeated, with four interceptions, four forced fumbles, four deflections, and 45 tackles. The Pats were on their way to the big game for a 2nd consecutive year, which they obviously couldn’t have done without the tremendous effort that Harrison put forth during these seasons, and he wasn’t entirely done yet.

Super Bowl XXXIX: New England Patriots @ Philadelphia Eagles

This was the fourth Super Bowl victory for the Patriots, who would hoist back-to-back Lombardi Trophies after a close game in Jacksonville that ended 24-21. Harrison was dominant in this one, recording seven tackles, one sack, two deflections, and two interceptions. He had been an essential and integral part of back-to-back champion seasons and was directly involved in creating what’s now known as the greatest dynasties in all major sports.

Harrison’s career was unfortunately marred with injuries after this season, but the Patriots’ historical playoff run of 2003-2004 proves he was one of the best to play the position. There are some other notable moments in his Patriots tenure, but probably not many worth getting this in-depth about.

Notable Stats/Records/Accolades Among Defenders:

  • He holds the record for sacks by a DB with 30.5
  • Harrison is the first player to record 30 sacks and 30 tackles (Ray Lewis is the 2nd and only other player to accomplish this feat)
  • The All-Time leader in Career Super Bowl Tackles (I counted 27, but other sources say 26 and 33, so I’m not sure) (2nd place coincidentally is our #5 Devin McCourty with 21 tackles)
  • 2019 Patriots Hall of Fame Inductee
  • 1206 tackles (33rd all-time)
  • He led all defensive backs in tackles in back-to-back seasons in 2003 and 2004
  • 2x Pro Bowl, 2x 1st team AP

Conclusion

I imagine playing for an average team for ten years can be frustrating if you’re truly competitive. So many people start to doubt you, and if you’re not careful, you’ll also begin to challenge yourself. Rodney never once doubted himself, and as soon as he was in position with the right situation, he let everyone know exactly who he was and what he was here to do, which was usually hit you as hard as he could. He’s one of my favorite players of all time, and we’ve never seen anybody who played the game quite like him to this day.

Article to be continued soon in Part III, Part IV & V. Thanks for reading!

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