Rodney Harrison shook things up when he joined in 2003. (USA TODAY Images)
The debate may go on about which team between the Patriots' 2003 and 2004 was the better team, but after going through the numbers, it's hard not to appreciate how dominant the 2003 group was on the defensive side of the football.
What they accomplished was pretty impressive. They finished the season having allowed just 238 points during the regular season, including three shutouts (12-0 against Dallas, 12-0 against Miami, 31-0 vs Buffalo). They lead the league in points-per-game allowed with 14.9, along with finishing with an NFL best 29 interceptions.
Ten players finished with interceptions that season, with Ty Law and Tyrone Poole leading the way with six. Here's a look at the list:
Ty Law: 6
Tyrone Poole: 6
Eugene Wilson: 4
Tedy Bruschi: 3
Rodney Harrison: 3
Asante Samuel: 2
Mike Vrabel: 2
Aric Morris: 1
Willie McGinest: 1
Larry Izzo: 1
The secondary that season had quite a year, finishing with 121 passes defensed, 13 better than the next team in that category, which was the Houston Texans with 108. That's the most of the Belichick era, and the fourth highest total over that same span behind the 2001 Browns (130) and the '05 and '06 Eagles (129 and 124 respectively).
Law lead the league in passes defensed that year with 23, while Poole was third with 21.
The group up front was solid as well, with New England finishing the year ranked 4th in rushing yards per game allowed with 89.6, also their best performance of the Belichick era. Ted Washington and Richard Seymour did a good job inside, while Jarvis Green (2.5 sacks in the postseason) Mike Vrabel (3 postseason sacks), Tedy Bruschi, rookie Ty Warren, and Roman Phifer were some key names from that group who made significant contributions during the postseason.
Rodney Harrison enjoyed a terrific first season in New England, finishing 2nd in the AFC during the postseason with 24 tackles and was tied with the Colts David Macklin with 2 interceptions, which was the 2nd most behind Law's NFL best three. Harrison also had three passes defensed along with a forced fumble.
As we all know, Harrison' arrival preceded the end of Lawyer Milloy's career in New England. Everyone knows the story of the 31-0 opening loss to the Bills and the subsequent media reactions that followed. There's always the famous "they hate their coach" comment by ESPN's Tom Jackson, which Harrison later said wasn't the case.
That was a tumultuous time, and the week before the Super Bowl that season Harrison reflected on what it was like when he first arrived, where he admitted he wasn't well liked in the locker room.
“When I first came in, I really didn’t make any friends, I made enemies. No one really wanted to talk to me once I got in the locker room," said Harrison. "I didn’t care about that. It wasn’t about me making friends. It was about me proving to people that I still had gas in my tank and that I can still play. As I spent some time with the guys, I realized they respected me and wanted me here. After that, I calmed myself down.”
Overall he said he was always fueled by the doubters who didn't believe in him. That season ended up being a memorable one, and one that made him a valuable asset in the years to follow until he finally walked away from the game.
“Once again it was about people not believing that I was able to do it," said Harrison. "I was too small, I wasn’t good enough to play in the Big 10 or any of the other schools I wanted to go to. I think that’s why I play with such rage. No one has ever given me credit or any sense that I was able to play at this level or even the college level. They always doubted me and that’s just driven me to prove people wrong.”
That he did, and he was a big reason for their success in a season that capped off their second championship. It's a defense that will be remembered as one of the best during Belichick's tenure, with a group that looking back on paper didn't appear impressive at first, but collectively simply played really well together. They even managed to do it with additional players like defensive backs Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel, who were both rookies at the time.
This season, with the additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, it's a secondary that on paper should be a big improvement from where they were in past seasons. It will be interesting to see if this current group is able to approach the level that made this team one of the most dominant ones of those championship years.
Those were big shoes to fill, and looking back those players were all big reasons why that was definitely one of the more memorable defenses in Patriots history.
HARRISON MADE NOISE IN PRESEASON THAT YEAR:
Fans may also remember that Harrison's arrival in New England wasn't immediately met with adoration from his fellow players, a fact that he obviously admitted at the end of his first season. The veteran got into some squabbles during training camp, including against fellow teammates Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk after making his presence known by some big hits on each of the two players.
At the time Belichick dismissed it as part Harrison's competitive nature.
"We know how competitive Rodney is and we have a lot of other competitive players, highly competitive players on defense," said Belichick following a practice that July. "So I think he’s a good addition into that group. Mixing it up in training camp, that’s part of training camp. It’s hot. Everybody’s tired. There are some short fuses and that’s going to be part of it.
"But in the end we are all wearing the same jerseys on Sunday afternoon. We’re a team and we’ve got to work with each other and compete against each other. But at the same time we’ve got to take care of each other and really put our energy into our opponents. That’s who the true opponents are, not ourselves. But there’s a fine line on that in training camp, because everyone is trying to earn their job and establish their level of play. It is competitive. So sometimes it turns into a little thing."
Harrison's approach and intensity were two qualities Belichick admitted he liked about him, saying he wished all his players had the same competitiveness.
"I think when he steps on the field, he has a business attitude. Rodney prepares well," he said of Harrison. "Football’s important to him and he’s going out there to do a job. That’s his job. I don’t have any problem with that. I wish all of our players had a good, competitive approach to the job at the highest level. Some guys you are trying to push up to a higher level, competitively. Other guys, maybe you have to slow them down just a little bit. Sometimes it’s a little bit easier to put the brakes on than step on the gas."
We've heard a lot of talk recently about Tom Brady talking about the fact that he was a sixth round pick because he didn't necessarily possess the physical attributes to be taken higher. But one thing that Harrison did point out leading up to the Super Bowl was that it wasn't about where a player was taken that mattered. It was the heart and determination, which are two intangibles that simply can't be analyzed on paper.
"Who really cares? It doesn’t matter if you’re a first round draft pick," said Harrison. "A bunch of people say this guy has the height and size for a first rounder, it doesn’t matter. That’s just paper work. This guy has intangibles. He has the heart, the determination. He’s tough, he’s gritty and he wants to win. Look at the road he took. It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t a first rounder. Look at me, I wasn’t a first rounder, this is my tenth year. It’s about what you have inside. You can’t judge a person’s heart."
Days later, that's likely one of the reasons why the Patriots won their second championship.
REISS: RB JAMES WHITE ONE TO WATCH:
Interesting note from Reiss' Sunday notes column regarding rookie running back James White, who Reiss believes may be flying under the radar:
With so much attention focused on Patriots top picks Dominique Easley and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (second round), I think running back James White (fourth round, Wisconsin, 130th overall) has slipped under the radar a bit. Everything I've heard is that the 5-foot-9, 204-pound White has made a strong first impression, both from a skills and approach standpoint, and even though it's early I don't think it's a stretch to say he will contribute in 2014. Bill Belichick has compared his style of play to fourth-year Patriots running back Shane Vereen.
The running back position will be interesting to watch this year as it is, with Stevan Ridley looking to bounce back from a frustrating 2013 performance, while Vereen is looking to hopefully have a healthy 2014 campaign. Both players are free agents at the end of this season, so if White can establish a role for himself, it may help him when the team starts making decisions moving forward.
GRONKOWSKI HAS DONE SOME GOOD THINGS THIS OFFSEASON:
While the cameras may have caught him in Las Vegas recently, it's hard not to appreciate the amount of charity events and appearances that Rob Gronkowski has been involved in this offseason. He's shaved his head to raise money to help fight children's cancer, donned waiter attire to help Danny Amendola raise money for his foundation, and also did a recent meet and greet at Wegmans to raise money for his own Youth Foundation.
Otherwise it's hard to fault him for the opportunities he's gotten on the big screen with his Entourage cameo, or his appearance on "Who's Line is it Anyway?", as those are opportunities which certainly don't hurt anyone.
As a result it's pretty obvious that his focus has certainly shifted as he continues rehabbing the torn ACL he suffered against Cleveland last season, and a recent report suggested even suggests he may be ready to go by Week 1.
After seeing his football mortality flash in front of his eyes one too many times, it's been nice this offseason seeing him turn a corner and he's done some terrific work locally. Unfortunately it doesn't get mentioned as much as it certainly should, but kudos to him for what he's done and hopefully he has some better luck this season.
- "I haven't called a play in five months. I have to rebuild all that myself. We all do." - Bill Belichick talking about the fact he and the coaches have to get re-acclimated to calling plays via Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston
- "When you get him off the media and doing all that stuff, and he gets more into his comfort zone where it's him up there teaching football and teaching guys life lessons, you get to see a different side of him. I think that's the joy of playing for him -- you learn things football-wise and he does a good job for each one of us of just trying to give us some lessons that will help you in life." - Devin McCourty on Bill Belichick via Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston
“I’m just really proud of him. I’m really proud of who he is as a player. But more importantly as a man, as a husband, as a future father. He’s setting a good example for a lot of people.” - Former Patriot Ben Watson speaking about his brother and current tight end, Asa Watson - via Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald
“He’s proven it time and again. The only person you can debate it with is Sherman. I’m not taking anything away from Richard Sherman, but in my eyes, Darrelle is the superior of the two. Sherman is a close second.” - Ty Law talking about Darrelle Revis via Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe