Familiar paths lead vets to Super Bowl

HOUSTON -- In life, there are death and taxes, always. In Super Bowls, there are Stealth bomber flyovers, fireworks displays, eight-hour pregame shows, patriotism bordering on jingoism, well-lubricated fans and eclectic, eardrum-splitting halftime shows.

And, oh, yeah, for Super Bowl XXXVIII, there is this certainty as well: An early-game, helmet-to-helmet train wreck between two savvy veterans plucked off the scrap heap last spring by the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers, after each was summarily discarded by their previous teams.

"Count on it," nodded Panthers tailback Stephen Davis, when asked if he expects to see a lot of New England strong safety Rodney Harrison on Sunday evening.

Count on it, indeed, folks. And look for it early on. In fact, close your eyes and visualize the first Carolina offensive series, with Harrison edging ever closer to the scrimmage line to create an eight-man front, Davis set deep in the Panthers backfield, and then taking a handoff from Jake Delhomme and slashing to the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle.

And then …

Uh, the noise that just snapped you out of your reverie? That was the collision of castoffs which resulted from the initial Harrison-Davis engagement of the evening. Think pad on pad, bumper against bumper, mano a mano. Think about the bam and the thwack and the wham off the campy old "Batman" television series. Geez, think about the headaches, because Davis and Harrison certainly do. Asked if he'd packed an industrial-sized bottle of aspirin for Sunday night, Davis just smiled.

"We're two guys," said Harrison, "who would play hard if it was a flag football game. So I can hardly imagine what we're going to be like with a Super Bowl ring on the line."

What neither Davis nor Harrison could have imagined last spring -- the first having been pink-slipped by the Washington Redskins, the latter dumped by the San Diego Chargers, each after long and productive careers with their original NFL franchises -- was that their initial season in a foreign uniform would bring them to this place. Eight or nine months ago, there is no way either player could have conjured up the possibility of meeting in a Super Bowl, or of the concussive convergence that awaits them.

They were branded by their former teams as used-up, a step slow, physically eroded by too many years of pounding the ball or pounding the ball carrier. Yet here they are, two of the biggest brand-names, together in a Super Bowl defined by anonymity. Two late, but still significant, cinder blocks in the construction of the championship rosters. A couple of accidental tourists wandering through the Super Bowl hoopla.

Two guys who have thumbed their noses at their former teams and demonstrated to their new employers that they were right on the nose in salvaging them from the discard pile. They signed with their new teams within two days of each other, Harrison agreeing to a deal with the Patriots on March 12, Davis choosing the Panthers over the Houston Texans (apparently he was destined to play in Reliant Field in someone's uniform) on March 14.

Now they are only six days removed from destiny.

The history of the Super Bowl is rife with examples of teams that advanced to the title game because they added one key, veteran component. This year is no different. Carolina is here, in large part, because most of their offensive snaps begin with a handoff to Davis. They are enjoined by New England because most of the Patriots defensive snaps conclude with Harrison at the bottom of the pile.

"Would we be here without Rodney?" asked Patriots cornerback Ty Law, responding to a question with a semi-rhetorical query of his own. "I don't even want to think about it."

Nine seasons into a career that included a couple of Pro Bowl appearances, nearly 800 tackles, 26 interceptions and a resume littered with NFL-imposed sanctions that provided him a reputation as one of the league's hardest and most notorious hitters, Harrison was cut by a Chargers franchise that had determined he was excess baggage. One game into his first season with New England, following a training camp in which he laid out even the most veteran of Patriots wide receivers in passing drills, Harrison was named a team captain.

It is, indeed, impossible to know if the Patriots would have been here without Harrison, who was, he claimed, "just minutes away" from signing with the Raiders. A last-minute phone call from Pats coach Bill Belichick, with an entreaty to jump on a red-eye flight for a visit with New England officials, put the Oakland contract on hold. Once in Foxboro, the Patriots made sure Harrison didn't leave until he signed a contract.

"He had a plan for me," recalled Harrison of the Belichick sales pitch. "When a lot of people around the league didn't believe I could play anymore, he was up there drawing up defenses, showing me where I fit in. He kept telling me that he knew I was still a player. For a (free agent) who had been sitting around, waiting for the phone to ring, it meant a lot to hear that stuff."

To suggest that Harrison, 31, has meant a lot to the Patriots in 2003 would be an incredible understatement. Beyond his team-high 140 tackles, and a third Pro Bowl berth, there are some in the organization who feel he deserved consideration as the NFL's most valuable defensive player. In an ESPN.com poll of the top defenders of 2003, he ranked eighth.

Had Davis been able to stay healthy the entire season -- he missed two full games and parts of two others, and still ran for 1,444 yards, a career best -- he might have challenged for overall most valuable player honors in the league. Certainly the eight-year veteran set the tone for the Panthers over the first half of the campaign, as he became the centerpiece of a rudimentary offense, one that bludgeoned defenses into submission.

With the Redskins, he had rushed for more than 1,300 yards in three straight seasons. But when his productivity dropped to 820 yards in 2002, and Washington officials faced an $11 million-plus salary cap charge, coach Steve Spurrier deemed him extraneous and not suitable for the pass-oriented offense he had installed.

As was the case for Harrison, the phone didn't ring in the Davis household very much in the immediate aftermath of his release. Beyond the Texans and Panthers, there were not a lot of suitors. But the Panthers had a few key selling points: the proximity to Davis' hometown of Spartanburg, S.C., a solid contract that included the potential for estimable bonus money, a chance to carry the ball 300-350 times in the Dan Henning-designed offense.

"For us," acknowledged general manager Marty Hurney, "he was the perfect fit. He gave us a chance to play the game the way we like to play it."

For the homebody Davis -- a runner with natural body lean, great power and deceptive speed in the secondary -- the dovetail was a good one as well. He worked hard in camp to get himself into better condition than the past several years, concentrated on building up his oft-injured shoulders, and came to practice every day with something to prove.

"I can relate to (Harrison), because we both kind of had to overcome the same things to get here, you know?" said Davis. "Too bad only one of us will leave with a ring."

Too bad both of them, given the mutual collisions in which they are apt to be involved on Sunday night, will leave with ringing in their ears.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.