FOXBOROUGH - Rodney Harrison always has played the game of football on his own terms, but what could be his final NFL season didn't end on his terms.
A league source confirmed Tuesday that Harrison suffered a torn quadriceps in his right leg during the Patriots' 41-7 win over the Denver Broncos Monday night. The injury will end Harrison's 2008 season, and very likely could signal the end of a Hall of Fame-worthy 15-year career.
That seemed to be the thought in Harrison's mind as he was carted off the field after being injured on the final play of the third quarter while chasing Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. Harrison pointed to his teammates and waved to the fans as he was driven away. He also shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, "What can I do?"
"It was difficult for all of us to watch Rodney get carted off like he did," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "We hope that goes well for him."
The 35-year-old Harrison, who signed with the Patriots in 2003 after he was released by the San Diego Chargers and was a member of two Super Bowl-winning teams in New England, is looking at a long and arduous rehabilitation, and he may elect to simply hang it up rather than try to return from yet another injury.
Harrison blew out his left knee in the third game of the 2005 season. He came back in 2006 only to miss six games with a broken shoulder blade, then suffered a sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the 2006 season finale that sidelined him for the playoffs.
The loss of Harrison, a two-time Pro Bowler and the NFL's all-time leader in sacks by a safety with 30.5, is another blow to a team that already has lost franchise quarterback Tom Brady for the season to a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee and shelved starting running back Laurence Maroney for the season with a shoulder injury.
"Rodney is one of the best safeties to ever play the game, and to see one of our leaders and one of our captains go down, you never want to see that," said quarterback Matt Cassel. "After the game, everybody made their way into the training room to let him know how much we appreciate what he's done for this team and organization.
"I don't know what the injury is, but we all hope for the best and God willing he'll be out there again."
As of Tuesday, the Patriots had yet to place Harrison on injured reserve, but when they do, they will have to figure out how to replace him.
Without Harrison, the only safety in NFL history to accumulate 30-plus sacks and 30-plus interceptions (34), the Patriots will have to find a new starter opposite James Sanders. The top option appears to be second-year safety Brandon Meriweather, who has been a regular in nickel situations. Meriweather leads the team in interceptions, recording his third in the win over the Broncos.
One obvious option would be unemployed veteran and nine-time Pro Bowler John Lynch, who was released by the Patriots Aug. 31 after being signed Aug. 15. The sides parted ways amicably with Belichick praising the 15-year veteran and Lynch lauding the organization.
Lynch would provide some of the same physical style of play and football acumen that the Patriots lose in Harrison. However, a league source characterized the likelihood of Lynch landing in New England as not promising.
The Patriots may prefer to look internally and promote safety Antwain Spann from the practice squad before signing another defensive back who has been out of football for the first seven weeks of the season.
Whomever takes Harrison's spot on the roster won't be able to replace his sui generis presence, both on the field and in the locker room.
"Rodney is one of the leaders on the defense from experience and from his playing style and production," said Belichick. "He is a good player, and has been a good player [for us] going on six years now.
"It was hard to watch him go through what happened last night. That's tough. I feel badly for him. You hate to see that with any player. That was very unfortunate for him, and we all feel badly for him."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com