FOXBOROUGH -- For now, just being out there was enough.
In a few weeks there will be higher expectations and greater demands on Rodney Harrison, but last night just being at safety, just running free toward pileups not of his own making, was enough because 11 months ago he was a one-man pileup.
He was on the field that day in Pittsburgh just like he was last night for the start of the Patriots' exhibition rout of the Washington Redskins, but the circumstances of his leaving the field were quite different. Last night, he left on his own. Eleven months ago, he left on a golf cart.
The difference is sizable, just as the importance of his return will be if the 33-year-old safety is able to complete a remarkable recovery from an injury in which all three ligaments in Harrison's left knee exploded as the Steelers' Cedric Wilson rolled into his leg as he was trying to run across the field to do what he loves best -- make a play.
Harrison went down and did not get up, carted off in obvious pain. He was not seen again for months, finally showing up late in the season after surgery had put his knee back together, but no one knew what the long-term results would be because this was not simply a knee injury. It was a devastating knee injury.
After 12 years in the NFL, Harrison understood the difference. Pain was often his co pilot, especially the past three years in New England when he has continued to play a bone-crushing style despite shoulders that often throbbed. There is, however, a difference between pain and injury, although the former usually accompanies the latter. This time, there was plenty of both.
For long, lonely months Harrison rehabilitated his knee while many wondered if he would be the same intimidating force he'd been for so many years. Harrison wondered, too, but what he did not do was doubt. Others doubt. He works.
Last night, the results of that work bore fruit when he trotted onto the field with the starting defense. There had been no signs that he would play except that he did not miss a practice in the four days leading up to last night's 41-0 dismantling of the Redskins. That, he said, had been his goal -- to practice several days in a row, putting ever more pressure on his knee to see how it responded.
It responded well enough for him to play the opening quarter with the first unit. He was not as noticeable as he has been on so many other game days. He was not up stuffing the run or having to be pried off the grill of one of his opponents after an intimidating hit and the requisite post-hit intimidation. But he was out there, which in this first game back was enough.
``I think it was huge," Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour said of Harrison's return. ``Any time people write you off and say it's the end of your career, it shows the type of person he is. He's a tough guy and a hard worker.
``It was emotional for him [starting last night]. Any time you go out there can be your last game. We all know that. I was really excited for him."
What Harrison thought was left unknown because by the time the Patriots closed the locker room well after midnight, he was still not at his locker. A half-empty bottle of Powerade was by his locker and his clothes remained on a hanger but Harrison was not in evidence.
Whether he was icing his knee or was long gone didn't really matter because he couldn't have added much to his obvious exuberance when he first ran onto the field just after 8 p.m., a smile on his face.
Most of the time Harrison played off the line, often running up to piles that were already made. He looked to be moving a bit gingerly when those piles got too close, not from intimidation but simply from the realization that he was not needed to make a tackle because the Patriots' front seven was dominating the Redskins' running game (39 yards rushing in the first half) and doing the same to their passing game (51 yards).
Frankly, there was little for him, or any Patriots safety, to do last night. They were the last line of defense but the Redskins struggled to find a way through the first line, so by the time the action got near Harrison, it was already over. Perhaps that was well and good because this was just a dress rehearsal for Harrison, a test drive of a well-maintained used car that had recently been in the shop for some bodywork.
In the next day or two, Harrison will know how well that bodywork holds up. The Patriots' trainers will look for swelling in the knee and hope to find none. Harrison will watch the tape and see if he was running as freely as it appeared and playing with the kind of abandon that has been his trademark for so long.
In the end, he'll work to build on last night's shakedown cruise, pushing himself harder. Getting more involved in those pileups where trouble always loiters, unseen until it is too late.
Harrison wasn't an impact player last night but that was unimportant. For now, it was enough simply that he was a player. That he was not only back in uniform but back on the field, back running toward the ball, looking for trouble. He didn't make any last night but he also didn't encounter any. On this first night back from so far away, the latter was good enough.