Imagine how frustrated Walt Harris must have been last offseason. The free agent cornerback signed with the Redskins on March 18 and began a new chapter in his career. He was looking forward to impressing head coach Joe Gibbs and competing for playing time.
But there was one problem: he wasn't healthy enough to get on the field.
Tendonitis in his left knee kept Harris out of every mini-camp and the first two weeks of training camp. That's not exactly an ideal first impression on a coach with an affinity for durable players.
While his teammates practiced and learned the new defense implemented by assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams, Harris tried to stay mentally sharp from the sideline.
"I don't think I fell behind on the mental aspect because I was here during the whole offseason," Harris said. "I kind of learned on the sideline and just watched in the meeting rooms and learned as best I could. But there's a difference between sitting on the sideline and watching and being out there and playing and getting physical reps."
The 5-11, 192-pounder passed the team physical on August 16 and returned to the practice field that afternoon.
Harris played in two of the Redskins' final three pre-season contests and saw action as a reserve in each of the first six regular-season games. Getting back into the flow has been an ongoing process.
Said Harris: "I think I adjusted pretty quickly after having to go through what I went through the whole offseason. I feel pretty good about just being able to be back out there playing again."
Harris's stats this season are modest--just four tackles. But for a cornerback, that's often a sign that offenses aren't throwing in his direction and that his coverage has been solid. In the Green Bay game, he forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Phillip Daniels.
"Walt's a real key guy for what we're trying to do right now," Smoot said of Harris. "He's really smart. It's great to play with a guy like that."
Overall, the Redskins' pass defense is ranked fourth in the NFL.
Said head coach Joe Gibbs: "I think a lot of it is when you have corners who can play a lot of man coverage. It certainly helps everybody else because it allows you to commit more people inside. Our style of play is attributed to having [the defensive backs] play corner."
Harris is one of three former Mississippi State players on the Redskins this year, joining guard Randy Thomas and cornerback Fred Smoot.
Harris was a first-round draft pick (13th overall) of the Bears in 1996. He produced a career-high 113 tackles (93 solo) during his rookie season and followed that up with five interceptions and four forced fumbles in his second year.
A native of LaGrange, Ga., Harris spent the last two seasons teaming with Marcus Washington in Indianapolis. He started all but one of the Colts' regular-season games last season, registering 14 tackles in three playoff starts for Indy.