FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After the New England Patriots defeated the Indianapolis Colts in the 2003 AFC Championship Game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick gave safety Rodney Harrison a hug and said, "I am so glad we got you."
He repeated the phrase one more time for good measure. Harrison earned his coach's praise by intercepting a pass in the end zone on the Colts' first possession and later forcing a fumble.
Three years later, Harrison was absent for the conference title rematch and Peyton Manning exploited the middle of the Pats' defense. Manning connected with tight end Dallas Clark six times for 137 yards, and the Colts overcame a 21-6 halftime deficit to advance to Super Bowl XLI. Surely, Harrison's ability to shut down tight ends would have helped. As would his punishing hits, which intimidate receivers and tight ends going over the middle.
Harrison has come a long way since he suffered a devastating knee injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3 of the 2005 season. He tore his ACL, MCL and PCL. Harrison is in Year 2 of his recovery, which is when players with ACL injuries often show the most improvement. Patriots fans might see the Harrison of old this season.
Harrison participated in Patriots training camp last season, but he needed to wear a knee brace, which limited his mobility. Harrison played in the first eight games last season before suffering a broken scapula midway through the season against Indianapolis. He returned in Week 16, but a low block by Tennessee's Bobby Wade caused him to miss the playoffs.
Harrison became one of the symbols of the Patriots' dynasty when he intercepted Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXIX to give New England three titles in four years. Since that point, however, Harrison has struggled to stay on the field, missing 19 of 32 games over the past two seasons.
His absence has been noticeable. In 2003 and 2004, the Patriots forced 77 turnovers, the most in the NFL in that span, and they forced another 35 in 2006. But in 2005, when Harrison missed the final 13 games of the regular season, the Pats produced just 18.
Belichick does not rave about many players publicly, but Harrison is one of those few. It is a situation of a coach having his ideal player and a player having his ideal coach. Harrison is the turnover creator Belichick loves to have on any defense, and his ability to line up at multiple positions gives the master schemer more options. On the other hand, Harrison loves Belichick's no-nonsense approach.
"He is the best coach I have ever had," Harrison said after practice Sunday. "He knows about football players as well as anyone."
Added Belichick: "Rodney has always been our inspirational leader."
Harrison prefers not to talk about his rehab if for no other reason than he thinks people could never understand what he went through. According to Matt Penney, the co-president of Advanced Sports Therapy in Wellesley, Mass., who has treated a lot of ACL injuries, Harrison was probably on crutches for the first two to four weeks of his rehab.
Harrison essentially needed to learn how to bend his knee again. He also needed to develop circular motion in his knee. Then the focus shifted to strengthening the knee, which involved the use of free weights and a lot of squats.
"Rehabbing, just like playing, is a full-time job," Penney said. "Someone like Harrison was probably spending six hours a day on rehab. With an ACL injury, players can often come back the next season, but they are not the same. It is in Year 2 when you see the big difference. The challenge for a player like Harrison is mentally he might be three or four steps ahead of where he wants his body to be. With the improved surgical techniques in recent years, an injury like Harrison's is not career-ending, but it is certainly career-limiting."
Luckily for Harrison, he plays safety, not cornerback. When Rod Woodson returned from his ACL injury in 1996, the Steelers were forced to move him from cornerback to safety. After an ACL surgery, the loss of speed is often too much for a cornerback to overcome. Cornerbacks need the ability to switch directions and rotate easily -- a difficult task when recovering from knee surgery.
"Ten months after surgery, obviously, you are not where you want to be," Harrison said. "The more time you give it and the more rehab you put in, the better off you are. I feel a lot better now than I did 10 months ago. It is tough to come back from an ACL injury, especially when you are talking about three ligaments."
Oakland Raiders QB Daunte Culpepper suffered the same injury as Harrison's in 2005 and missed most of last season. The Raiders are hoping that Culpepper, like Harrison, can show significant improvement in Year 2.
If healthy, Harrison gives the Patriots' defense improved flexibility. He can blitz, stop the run and cover receivers. Harrison's presence also should allow the Patriots to call more safety blitzes. The past two seasons, the Patriots' safeties focused on coverage instead of on creating more pressure at the line of scrimmage. In 2003 and 2004, Harrison had six interceptions and 14 pass deflections. In 2006, the Pats' safeties, including a hobbled Harrison, combined for only seven pass deflections.
Harrison is hoping to bring that intensity back to the Patriots, something he has demonstrated in the first 19 practices of training camp. He has volunteered to participate in almost every drill, including scout team exercises, and Belichick sometimes has needed to exclude Harrison from drills so he is not overworked. Harrison, though, understands he does not have to do too much.
"I am just one piece to the puzzle," Harrison said.
It is a puzzle that is rather impressive, especially with the signing of Adalius Thomas in the offseason. Safety Eugene Wilson, who was Harrison's counterpart in 2003 and 2004, missed most of last season because of a recurring injury but has played well in training camp. Wilson and Harrison are excited about the possibility of playing together again.
At safety, the Pats also have James Sanders, possibly the Patriots' most improved player last season; Artrell Hawkins, a veteran who started in 2006; Mel Mitchell; and first-round pick Brandon Meriweather.
"Last year Rodney was coming off the surgery, so it was difficult for him, but this year he has a lot more confidence," Pats tight end Benjamin Watson said. "When I line up against Rodney Harrison in practice, I know that he is going to give me his best look. He definitely makes people around him play at a higher level."
William Bendetson covers football for ESPN.com.