Al Harris has much to prove with Rams
BY JIM THOMAS | Posted: Thursday, August 4, 2011 12:15 am

When you're trying to improve your game, why not study the best? So it was that Rams cornerback Ron Bartell spent an entire summer a couple of years ago watching tape of Green Bay's savvy corner tandem of Al Harris and Charles Woodson.

Suffice to say when the Rams signed Harris to one-year deal a few days ago, no one at Rams Park was happier than Bartell, with the possible exception of coach Steve Spagnuolo.

"I think it was a great pickup," Bartell said. "I've been picking Al's brain since he got here."

Bartell is entering his seventh season in the NFL and has 88 games and 64 starts on his résumé, so he's far from a wide-eyed rookie. His respect for Harris is telling.

"Just to have the privilege and the honor of playing with Al Harris is huge," Bartell said. "I mean, he's been in this league 15 years at cornerback. I'm not sure many guys have done that."

For the better part of a decade, Harris was a familiar sight in the Green Bay secondary: intense, ultra-competitive, jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, breaking up passes, with his trademark dreadlocks flapping in the breeze. He was the quintessential in-your-face cornerback.

But Harris suffered a severe left knee injury in 2009 during a late November game against San Francisco. He missed the rest of that season, began the 2010 campaign on the physically unable to perform list, then was cut by the Packers last Nov. 8.

Thus ended a 7˝-season run that included 102 starts.

Harris finished the 2010 season appearing in three games with Miami, but the Packers thought so much of Harris that they gave him a Super Bowl ring following their 31-25 triumph over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.

"Those are my guys," Harris said. "Spent a lot of time there. Played a lot of snaps there. Lot of consecutive snaps there. So it is what it is."

At age 36, and with all those games and seasons under his belt, why does the two-time Pro Bowler still want to play?

"I love the game, man," Harris said. "I've still got something to prove. I'm here to help win. Spags is a great guy. I remember him from back in Philly. Diggs is here. I'm just trying to help build something."

Rams linebacker Na'il Diggs was a teammate of Harris' for three seasons in Green Bay. Spagnuolo's tenure in Philadelphia overlapped with Harris for four seasons (1999 through 2002).

Originally a sixth-round draft pick by Tampa Bay in 1997, Harris was claimed off waivers by the Eagles in 1998 and played for them until a trade in 2003 to Green Bay.

"We were in the same meeting room in Philadelphia," Harris said. "Spags has the same mentality as Jim (Johnson), bless his heart. Just this defense, I was raised in this defense. This is the defense that I came up under."

The late Jim Johnson solidified his reputation as of one of the NFL's great defensive coordinators with the Eagles before his death in 2009.

Even at his advanced football age, Harris said other teams showed interest in signing him this summer, but his mind was set on the Rams from the outset because of Spagnuolo and because of the defense.

"Spags hasn't changed at all," Harris said. "He's one of the good guys."

One reason Harris still wants to play is that he doesn't want to end his career off an injury.

"You can never leave when you're hurt," Harris said. "You always leave when you're strong."

As he enters training camp with the Rams, Harris says the knee feels good and he welcomes the challenge of trying to help build a team.

"I've been in this situation before, not so much coming off the injury, but to help build," Harris said. "We weren't always the best teams in Philly, and we weren't always the best teams in Green Bay. ... So you help build by working, and the things that were passed on to me I can pass on to the younger guys."

Like all other newly signed veterans around the league, Harris can't practice until the collective bargaining agreement is officially approved.

But even in the handful of practices so far in camp, he has made his presence felt working with the other cornerbacks.

Bartell and Bradley Fletcher are the Rams' starting cornerbacks, and that won't change. But Harris might help on the field in the team's nickel and dime packages. And with all his experience and his willingness to share that knowledge, his role might best be described as player-coach.

"I think he's a great influence on the rest of the guys in that group, because he's been through it," Spagnuolo said. "He's been doing it a long time. We put a lot of value on press corners, and Al has done that for a long time. So hopefully, by osmosis here, some guys will learn something and he'll play some good football, too."