ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Every once in a while, a little dissension ripples through the NFL's most harmonious team.
Rodney Harrison is usually at the center of it, and he usually picks the New England Patriots' practices to begin making waves.
"Rodney," offensive lineman Matt Light said, "is the best guy at tearing down our offense."
Football fans know Tom Brady as the unflappable quarterback who won two Super Bowl MVPs after leading the Patriots on winning drives in the final minutes of their last two appearances in the NFL title game. But the TV viewers never see what happens at practice, when Brady has to face his own defense.
It's there where Pats coach Bill Belichick encourages the defensive scout team players to go after his offense just as fiercely as opponents would.
"He had them all riled up, each time they make a play or bat down a pass they go crazy," Brady said Wednesday.
"They were hooting and hollering and it was making the offensive guys really mad."
Most regulars don't play on the scout team, leaving the "dirty show" - as linebacker Tedy Bruschi calls it - to the backups who mimic each upcoming opponent and prepare the Patriots' starters for the real games.
But Harrison plays with the scout team, partly because the Patriots are short on defensive backs and partly because he is a fanatic for preparation. It's something his teammates appreciate and one reason why Harrison is a good fit on a squad that values team play more than individual glory.
"Rodney probably doesn't have to line up over there," Light said. "But it makes us better."
As the anchor of the Patriots defense, Harrison has solidified a secondary that lost both starting cornerbacks and was forced to use receiver Troy Brown on defense. Even with the subs, they shut down league MVP Peyton Manning in the Patriots' first playoff game and rookie of the year Ben Roethlisberger to win their third AFC title in four years.
"It's a great testament to him. He's able to really just go out there and play well regardless of who is next to him," linebacker Don Davis said of Harrison. "He's like, 'Yeah, put him there and then we're going to get it done.'"
Next up: Donovan McNabb.
"I think that people don't talk about the players on the defensive side," the Philadelphia quarterback said. McNabb then proceeded to do just that, reeling off the names of Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Roman Phifer.
"Guys like that, most teams would die to have," McNabb added. "No one really talks about them."
When he joined the Patriots in 2003, Harrison brought with him a reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the league. In his second practice with New England, he clocked receiver Troy Brown on a route across the middle, flattened running back Kevin Faulk and had words with Light.
But a month later, Harrison had so impressed his teammates that a group asked Belichick to make him one of the defensive captains.
"Once you knew Rodney and you knew what he was about, you learn to accept it," Faulk said. "You understand what he's doing and why he's trying to do it as a teammate."
Harrison remains one of the most-frequently fined players in the NFL, being docked more than $350,000 for illegal hits in his career. The letters from NFL discipline czar Gene Washington have become so routine that Harrison doesn't bother reading them; the fines are automatically deducted from Harrison's paychecks.
"I don't worry about the money.... I'm going to keep playing the way I play," he said. "Of course it pays off because they look for you and they know who you are - even though they don't vote for you (for the Pro Bowl) and you don't have many friends around the league.
"But, when you get that respect and you have guys come up to you and tell you, 'I don't like you, but I love the way you play,' that's all you ask for."
Even the guys on his own team agree - except when they have to face him.
"Everyone wanted to take a shot at Rodney Harrison," Light said. "He made you want to knock him off his feet."
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