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Making the Case: Who is the best safety in Patriots history?

Ryan Keiran (@Ryan_Keiran) and Brian Phillips (@BPhillips_SB) take their DM debates to the audience.

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Football season is almost here, folks. Teams have reported to training camp, and the Hall of Fame game that kicks off the preseason comes this Thursday. Between now--where the initial excitement of football being back is peaking--and the time where that excitement will wear into anxiety for the new season to start before a key player gets injured, the Patriots roster will be dissected from every angle. Instead of drilling in on roster analysis, Brian (@BPhillips_SB on twitter) and I want to take some of our private Patriot’s debates public and get a consensus winner.

In the making the case series, we will debate (as we often do in the DM’s) differing opinions on a Patriots-related topic, leaving it to you, the readers, to determine the winner. In today’s installment, Brian makes his case for why he believes Lawyer Milloy to be the best safety in Patriots history (as in the best Patriots career, not the best safety to play a down for the Patriots), while I argue for Devin McCourty.

Ryan: Welcome Brian. First off, let’s establish why neither of us believe the answer to this question to be Rodney Harrison, because you know that’s going to be the most frequent comment we get. For me, McCourty and Milloy both slot in ahead of Harrison. Both players had longer Patriots careers than Harrison. McCourty has more all-pro teams and equal Super Bowl victories to Harrison, while Milloy matches Harrisons all-pro selections with the team, still won a Super Bowl (arguably the most meaningful of the five combined these three have), and probably has the best individual season of the three. Harrison was a great player and extremely important to completing the Patriots dynasty, but injuries and the length of his career just doesn’t quite add up to the other two for me. Anything to add there?

Brian: We are absolutely in agreement that Rodney Harrison isn’t the greatest safety in Patriots team history. But before we move forward, I feel it’s imperative to note how just much hair-splitting must be done to squeeze two players ahead of him on the list, as the case for him is really strong.

Analysis and reaction to the acquisition of Harrison -- a guy who appeared at the time to be on the tail end of an All-Pro caliber career squandered in San Diego’s post-Super Bowl mediocrity -- quickly transformed from “excellent supplemental piece” to “critical contributor” as it helped indirectly spell the end of Lawyer Milloy’s time in Foxborough. Under intense initial pressure and scrutiny, Harrison immediately established himself as a strong vocal presence in a locker room full of veteran defensive leaders on his way to putting forth the second of his two career First-Team All-Pro seasons.

However, the biggest case for having Harrison atop this list is what he did in the postseason. On each of the team’s championship runs in 2003 and 2004, Harrison could be found consistently making crucial, timely plays like his drive-killing sack in the third quarter of Super Bowl 38 -- which fans would later discover was done so with a broken arm. He amassed seven interceptions (two of which he took to the house) in 13 playoff games with New England, including two of Donovan McNabb in Super Bowl 39.

Unfortunately, as you mentioned, Harrison’s age and oft-criticized, punishing style of play led to injuries that restricted his tenure with the club. But when all the aforementioned hairs are split, the deciding factor against Harrison is that his his prime athletic years were clearly spent on the west coast, and that the catalyst for the extension of his career was his “helicoptering-in” to one of the league’s top defensive personnel situations in Foxborough.

So Ryan, let’s hear the case for McCourty.

Ryan: Absolutely correct Brian, none of this is to take away from Harrison. Depending on how McCourty finishes his career, Harrison likely will finish with the best overall career of the three we’ll talk about in this article, just not the best Patriots career.

As for McCourty, the argument comes in his combination of longevity, sustained high levels of performance, and team success. In his eight seasons with the Patriots, McCourty has started all 16 games five times, and has never missed more than two. He is a four-time All-Pro -- double what Milloy amassed -- meaning he has been a top-four safety in the NFL for half of his career (and for those who want to discount his years at cornerback for this argument, he has three in six years at safety). He’s been a true center fielder, erasing the deep third of the field at a level only surpassed by Earl Thomas in his time in the league. McCourty has twenty career interceptions and eight forced fumbles -- both of which are one more than Milloy. He also has 76 career passes defended to Milloy’s 10. McCourty is entering his age 31 season and looks to be a mainstay of the Patriots secondary for at least the next two seasons.

As for team success, McCourty has never missed the playoffs, appearing in seven conference championships, making four Super Bowls and winning two. Lawyer Milloy won one Super Bowl, appeared in two, missed the playoffs three times in seven years, and was the first player to feel Belichick’s “no one is safe” mentality. While Milloy continued to be a good player in Buffalo, he wasn’t the same, and the Patriots won back to back Super Bowls in the years immediately after moving on from Milloy.

While Milloy was a great player, and his 1999 season might be the best safety season in Patriots history, McCourty has already put together the better overall Patriots résumé. That being said, let’s hear from Brian on the case for Milloy.

Brian: When turning to counting statistics, it’s important to point out just how different each player’s role was within the defense. With teammate Willie Clay often providing single-high coverage, Milloy was consistently deployed as a true box safety -- much like we see today with Patrick Chung. I will submit, however, that if it comes down to a case of counting statistics, sure, the nod has to go to McCourty. But here are some important numbers in the case for Lawyer Milloy:

1 -- As in First-Team All-Pro. In addition to his 1998 selection as a Second-Team All-Pro -- a previously-mentioned feat that McCourty accomplished four times -- Lawyer Milloy was selected as the best player in the game at his position in 1999.

4 -- Milloy represented the AFC in the pro bowl four times in a five-year span between 1998 and 2002 -- a feat only accomplished twice by McCourty.

3 -- The number of head coaches Lawyer Milloy had in his time in New England. Why is that important? Because of the most important reason for having Lawyer Milloy at the top of this list.

In a piece written by Nicole Yang of last December, Patriots team president Jonathan Kraft said that the now-infamous ‘Do Your Job’ mentality that the Patriots dynasty has been upon actually precedes Bill Belichick. Kraft said the origins of today’s winning culture can be attributed to the core of defensive players assembled in the early years of his father’s ownership: Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, and Lawyer Milloy. In the piece, McGinest goes on to speak about how that culture in New England was established.

“We took a little more pride in the smaller things, which I think is the reason why the organization is what it is today,” McGinest says in the piece. “Holding each other accountable and making sure everybody did their part. The term you guys hear so much now, ‘Do Your Job,’ we made that popular and turned it into wins and success.”

Lawyer Milloy was one of the original tone-setters. As coaches came and went, and as the team experienced successes and failures, Milloy was part of the foundation that kept the locker room together and in a place where something like the 2001 season could be possibility.

Milloy had the knack for making big plays in big spots, and for a brief time, was the best player at his position in the NFL. Crown the man.

Ryan: You make a compelling argument in Milloy’s favor, but Pro Bowl’s, while more valuable in Milloy’s day, are a near-useless point to argue in today’s game. McCourty may only have two nods, but his four all-pro nominations are more representative of his standing in the league. Milloy was the best player at his position for one year, but McCourty has been a top three player at his position--only definitely behind Earl Thomas--since he made the transition to safety.

You have a compelling “building the culture” argument. There’s no arguing that the quartet you laid out set the foundation of the dynasty. Milloy, however, is comfortably last of the four mentioned, where McCourty has been a top three--at worst--important player on the Patriots defense essentially since he entered the league. Milloy was a great player and crucial to that first Super Bowl victory, but his standing in terms of defensive importance never surpassed McCourty’s, merely equalled it for a shorter period of time. Any final thoughts Brian?

Brian: The first of two things I’ll add; yes, today’s Pro Bowl is a joke compared to the Pro Bowls of the past, but the significance of being selected on the original ballot -- which I was referring to -- remains the same. Those selections represent the the best at each position for a given year. Finally, your characterization of Milloy’s importance to the defense is nothing short of slanderous. The man was the team’s leading tackler for four straight seasons from ‘99 through 2001, he was their second leading tackler in ‘97, and third in ‘02. And over that span, he created 26 turnovers -- just three fewer than Ty Law -- while also adding seven sacks. The man was a force. We’ll have to agree to disagree, sir.

Ryan: I’m not sure it’s slanderous to say Lawyer Milloy was a less key piece to those defenses than Ty Law, Willie McGinest, and Tedy Bruschi, but it looks like we’ll have to let the readers decide this one. Thanks for your valuable (though wrong) input Brian, looking forward to the next one.

Who do you think is the best Patriots safety of all time? Vote in the poll below and leave your reasoning in the comments!


Who was the best safety in Patriots history?

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Devin McCourty
    (311 votes)
  • 14%
    Lawyer Milloy
    (112 votes)
  • 39%
    Rodney Harrison
    (298 votes)
  • 4%
    (33 votes)
754 votes total Vote Now