"It was," says new Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, "the most inspirational thing I've ever been around."
His team, the 1998 Chargers, finished 5-11, last in the AFC West. The offense committed 51 turnovers. No other team was close. Yet the San Diego defense finished No. 1 in the NFL.
"You'd see guys crying on the plane home," Harrison says. "So many turnovers, so much frustration. But our defense had this thing going, and it just snowballed. Guys working, working, coming in at all hours, lifting weights, studying.
"The offense would throw an interception," Harrison says. "Boom, we stop them, three and out. We're on the bench, we don't even get our helmets off, and our offense gives them the ball back again. Clap hands, let's go. We stop them again, three and out. What a feeling! That's what I came here for, to get the feeling back."
Defense sank New England last year and kept the defending Super Bowl champ out of the playoffs. The base defense didn't have the speed to keep up with the fast teams, and when the Pats put a speed unit on the field, it got muscled. Seven enemy ballcarriers rushed for more than 100 yards against the Patriots. One of them, the Dolphins' Ricky Williams, did it twice.
So coach Bill Belichick sat down with his vice president of player personnel, Scott Pioli. They drew up a list of the kind of players they wanted: hitters, tough guys, people who could run. They went the big-money route for ex-Bear Rosevelt Colvin, one of the plums of the free-agent market: a linebacker in the base unit and a devastating edge rusher on the nickel. Best of all, he's only 25. A day later they picked up Harrison, who'd been cut by the Chargers after nine seasons, four of which ended with his teammates voting him their defensive player of the year.
"The club figured that, at 30, I couldn't run anymore," Harrison says. "I'd suffered a groin pull in the first game last year. The muscle was 30 percent off the bone. The doctors told me I'd miss eight weeks. I missed two. I guess the Patriots feel I can run well enough."
Harrison was visiting the Raiders' complex in March when Pioli reached his agent, Steve Feldman. Don't sign anything, Pioli told Feldman. Come see us first.
Harrison was in Boston the next day. "The first thing Coach Belichick told me was, 'I like the way you warm up, the intensity of it,' " he says. "I'm thinking, Damn, this guy really knows football. So we sat there and talked, the coach, Scott Pioli and me, and they told me, 'You give us a chance to win,' and that's what I needed to hear. No b.s., no wining and dining, just straight football."
Colvin, who had serious offers from five other teams, essentially told the same story. "I sat in their office, and Scott Pioli was excited, and Coach Belichick was excited, and after a while, so was I. The coach talked about the great linebackers he had on the Giants, Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks and Lawrence Taylor, and all the plans he had for me and how I'd fit into their defense. Some of the other teams I'd talked to wanted to take me out for dinner and show me a good time, but you can keep all that stuff."