Commentary

Coaches validate Harrison's rep as NFL's dirtiest player

When you think of the NFL's dirtiest player, does Rodney Harrison come to mind? If so, you're among the majority, writes Mike Sando.

Originally Published: July 1, 2008
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

Rodney HarrisonJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesEleven coaches identified Rodney Harrison (14 personal fouls since 2001) as the NFL's dirtiest player.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The large medicine ball Rodney Harrison tossed around during a recent New England Patriots practice was no match for the veteran strong safety.

Harrison sat on a sideline, knees bent, extending his arms to the left as far as they could reach. He snatched the weighted ball and tossed it back across his body to a teammate in one core-shredding motion.

The exhausting exercise isn't the only feat of endurance familiar to Harrison. He has spent the bulk of his 14-year NFL career lugging around the baggage that comes with being thought of as the league's dirtiest player.

The label, reinforced through an ESPN.com poll of NFL head coaches, is not without basis. Fines and suspensions long ago became part of the cost of doing business for this two-time Pro Bowl choice. But Harrison's reputation, fueled by a penchant for playing up to the whistle and perhaps a tick beyond, might overshadow evidence that other players deserve as much or more scrutiny for questionable on-field tactics.

NFL Coaches Survey

ESPN.com surveyed NFL head coaches for their take on a range of issues, including the league's smartest offensive player (non-QB), smartest defensive player, dirtiest player, best owner and best referees. Thirty-one of the 32 coaches participated on some level. Each head coach received anonymity for his candor.

• Smartest offensive: Hines Ward
• Smartest defensive: Zach Thomas
• Dirtiest player: Rodney Harrison
• Best owner: Dan Rooney
• Best refs: Mike Carey, Ed Hochuli
• More: Can teams ostracize refs?
• Watch: NFL Live on 'dirtiest'
• Watch: NFL Live on 'smartest'
A review of data since 2001 shows Arizona Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson with a league-high 17 personal fouls. Harrison and New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith are tied for second with 14, followed by Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour (13), Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor (12), late Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor (12) and Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Shaun Rogers (11).

The numbers suggest Harrison's name belongs in the first paragraph of any discussion about the NFL's dirtiest players -- but perhaps not at the exclusion of others.

Harrison drew two personal-foul penalties last season. Seventeen players drew more, but none of them earned even one vote from head coaches as the league's dirtiest player. Coaches, encouraged not to vote for their own players, were granted anonymity for their candor.

"Sometimes reputation precedes people, and unfairly at times," Harrison said.

Eleven of the 18 head coaches who responded singled out Harrison.

"I think if you understand me and you've seen me play, if you watch the film, you'll see that I play hard, that I'm very fair with people," Harrison said. "I think I've been getting a bad rap and that's just part of it."

Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams, notorious for horse-collar tackling, finished second in the coaches' poll with two votes. Four players drew one vote apiece: New York Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward, Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae and Chicago Bears center Olin Kreutz. One head coach said he couldn't think of a truly dirty player, a sentiment shared by those who think hefty fines have curtailed the most flagrant violations.

"When I came in the league [in 1999], I saw a lot more dirty players," Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Guys were poking you on the bottom of the pile and chop blocking and all that stuff. But I think it has been cut down."

As for Harrison? "I think he'd be a good teammate because he brings an attitude and sets the tone," Bailey said, "but he can be dirty."

Not so, Harrison's defenders say.

Former Patriots receiver Deion Branch drew a line between Harrison's hard-nosed play and the approach Houston Texans defensive lineman Travis Johnson took after knocking out then-Miami Dolphins quarterback Trent Green with a legal hit last season. Johnson stood over the fallen Green and taunted him.

"[Harrison] is not that type of dude, I promise you," Branch said. "He's not going to go into a game and try to hurt someone. I can speak like this because I played with him. And I know for the people who didn't play with him, you could understand why they would say it, but he is not that type of guy. That is not his game."

Personal-foul penalties aren't the only way to measure a player's dirtiness. Just as a skilled criminal avoids detection, a player with sinister intentions might develop ways to inflict damage when officials aren't looking.

Harrison, 3 5, has been dishing out punishment in the NFL since 1994. The league has fined and suspended him repeatedly, including in 2002 when he leveled all-time receiving leader Jerry Rice with a helmet-to-helmet shot.

Most head coac hes polled by ESPN.com identified Harrison quickly and without equivocation.

"That's not a surprise," Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley said. "I would have bet my life savings on that one."

Stokley also singled out Tennessee Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan as a player with bad intentions. Finnegan, a former small-school prospect and seventh-round draft choice, has become popular in Tennessee for playing with an edge. But his name hasn't shown up among those with the most personal fouls.

"It really doesn't bother me," Stokley said. "It's a part of it and it's a violent, aggressive game. As long as guys don't take it too far. I really don't think it's a big problem in the league."

Harrison, who has expressed an interest in becoming an NFL official after retirement, has led the league in personal fouls once since 2001. That was in 2004, when he had five. He had zero in 2002 and 2006. His 14 personal fouls since 2001 include four for unnecessary roughness, three for roughing the passer, two for face masks and five that fell into a "generic" category featuring unspecified infractions, according to ESPN research.

Wilson leads the league with eight unnecessary roughness penalties since 2001. Cardinals linebacker Chike Okeafor leads with eight for roughing the passer. Atlanta Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking, Green Bay Packers cornerback Al Harris and former Tampa Bay Bucs offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker each had a league-high five personal-foul face mask penalties.

Put them in a lineup with Harrison, however, and the prime suspect is No. 37.

"It's something that I can't change," Harrison said. "If someone thinks that of me, that is what they think. But if you talk to the guys that have played with me, the guys that before I come to a team and played with, they say, 'You are a dirty son of a gun, but I would love to have you on my team.' But I'm not dirty. I just play hard."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.