‘No antagonistic movement’: The missable greatness of Mr. Giant, Michael Strahan

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Michael Strahan is one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, whose inductees will be announced a week from Saturday.

Strahan is on the short list of the greatest Giants of all time, and also among the most beloved: That part of his legacy was clinched not just by the Super Bowl championship with which he ended his career in 2007, but also by how he began 2008, his first as an ex-Giant.

How you comport yourself as a retired Giant can be nearly as determinative in these matters as how you played: Just ask Strahan’s longtime teammate and adversary, Tiki Barber, who by then had become persona non grata among Giants fans for his inflammatory comments about Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin. Strahan, having finally won a championship, was determined to take the exact opposite approach.

Hence his grand entrance into retirement before the Giants’ opening game: In time with a flourish of N.F.L.-commissioned music and a salvo of fireworks, Strahan burst forth from an inflatable replica of the Vince Lombardi Trophy at midfield. He was wearing his number 92 jersey, smiling wide and gap-toothed as always, and hoisting the actual Lombardi trophy.

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The gesture was vintage Strahan: Goofy and self-aggrandizing, sure, but also marked by perfect comic timing and undeniable awesomeness if you were in the right mood.  

Since then, Strahan has attained full-on national celebrity and been bronzed as an all-time New York sports icon. Where Barber attempted to establish credibility as a media personality by being brutally honest about his ex-team, Strahan has become an unabashed homer on his weekly gig on FOX football studio show, forever wrapping himself in that Big Blue jersey, forever Mr. Giant.

All of this was far from a foregone conclusion as Strahan’s career was winding down, championship-less and, consequently, deemed not quite worthy of New York’s ultimate embrace. Strahan was respected as a great player but hardly worshipped as a living legend.

This arm’s distance relationship was embodied by fan reaction to his record-breaking sack in 2001, which came with a clumsily obvious assist from the opposing quarterback, Strahan’s buddy Brett Favre, with whom he had discussed golf swings before the game. For fans, pride in Strahan’s achievement was undermined by the sacrifice of competitive integrity and the naked individualism that went into it.

His holdout from training camp in 2007, during which he was ostensibly going through a Hamlet-like crisis of contemplating retirement but was more likely using that as a ruse to extend his offseason, has been papered over in the public’s mind by how that season ended. If not for the opposite paths their post-Giant careers took, Strahan’s holdout would undoubtedly have been judged a worse offense than Tiki Barber’s oft-criticized decision to announce his retirement in the middle of the 2006 season.

Overall, Giants fans were somewhere between charmed and wary when it came to Strahan’s gift of gab and penchant for self-promotion, which ran counter to the franchise’s brand of strong-silent-type stolidity.

For as affable as he is on camera these days, Strahan’s relationship with the press was often contentious. He was famously hypersensitive, forever wary of reporters he once said were always trying to “put me under the doo-doo pile. Stop doing that. I have feelings, too.”

His hurt feelings often came out in a mean streak. No more vividly was this on display than during a threatening outburst at a female reporter in 2006, when Strahan, while adopting a crazy-eyed expression and spitting out particles of food, challenged the reporter to “look a man in the eye before you try to kill ‘em [in print] or make up something.”

This image, to say nothing of the ugly allegations stemming from his divorce, doesn’t quite jibe with the image of Strahan seated next to Kelly Ripa on “Live!” every morning in his new role as America’s cuddly big guy.

Nobody ever questioned Strahan’s effort on the field, but his relationship with the Giants organization had its share of ups and downs.

Strahan wasn’t immune to the ugly offense-defense wars of the late 1990s, when members of the defense grew increasingly vocal about propping up a perennially dreadful offense. The low point came when Strahan went on a rant to the press about the offense and then-coach Jim Fassel’s handling of the acrimony. He did it on the day Fassel was attending his mother’s funeral.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing with the Giants’ next coach either. Strahan and Tom Coughlin clashed immediately. Strahan, a disciplined self-starter, was insulted by Coughlin’s rigid rules. “When I first met Coach Coughlin, it wasn’t a dislike. It was a hate,” Strahan says in the NFL Network’s “A Football Life” documentary on Coughlin.

But all’s well that ends well, which might be the theme of Strahan’s career.

He patched things up with Fassel, and was instrumental in getting the defensive players to accept quarterback Kerry Collins, whose reputation before coming to the Giants was marred by an alcohol problem and an incident in which he drunkenly, and in a horrible attempt at humor, used a racial slur with a teammate.

“Kerry came in with people saying, ‘He’s this, he’s that.’ And I had a couple of guys I ended up releasing,” Fassel told me over the phone.

“Michael was one of the guys who was trying to help and bond it. He would judge you on your own merits, which is the right thing to do. And he wanted a quarterback in here who could take us to a Super Bowl.”

By the end of Fassel’s last season in New York, the Giants were an injury-ravaged shell of a team, having lost Collins and nearly every single healthy offensive linemen, cornerback, and safety. Consequently, they lost their final eight games, mostly by large margins.

“One of those games, I said, ‘Michael, I’m gonna get you out the game.’ He refused to come out, and he refused to take a day off of practice. And that’s the ultimate respect you have for a great player.”

As for Coughlin, the love-fest between them is well-documented by now. Strahan came to see the method behind Coughlin’s madness, to the benefit of team morale.

“I’ve gone from a guy who wouldn’t play for him for one year, to a guy who wouldn’t play for anybody else if I had to go back and play football,” Strahan said in Coughlin’s “A Football Life.”

All’s well that ends well. Somehow, 2007, a season that began with a not-yet-in-game shape Strahan and the Giants defense getting blown out of their first two games and mostly stumbling through the rest of the season as a mediocre outfit, ended very well.

One of the signature images of that Super Bowl was Strahan’s pep talk to the offensive linemen before the Giants’ final drive, when the Giants’ trailed 14-10.

“17-14 is the final, okay? 17-14, fellas. One touchdown, we are world champions. Believe it, and it will happen.”

The beef between offense and defense was a distant memory. It did happen, and with that, any ambivalence Giants fans had felt toward their longtime best player was swept away, and the greatness of Strahan’s career was rightly brought into focus.

THAT CAREER SPANNED 15 YEARS: FROM the tail end of the Lawrence Taylor era to the beginning of the prime of the Eli Manning era; from Dan Reeves to Tom Coughlin; from the ridiculously non-matching navy blue helmets with all-caps “GIANTS” to today’s retro “ny;” from a doughier physique for Strahan to a streamlined late career version; from a franchise that was adrift following the advent of free agency to one of today’s most perennially successful.

The central contradiction about Strahan is that for as much as he sought and received the limelight as a personality, it’s possible that his greatness as a player was overlooked during his time. In 15 years, Strahan only made seven Pro Bowls, and made first-team All Pro just four times. In stats-driven evaluation of defensive ends, someone or other was often having a "better" year than him. But after he retired, the NFL Network named him the seventh-best defensive end of all time, and the 99th best player of all time.

For all his bubbliness and attention-seeking off the field, Strahan was straight lunchpail on it. His game was more sound than eye-popping, defined by an utter lack of weaknesses and and by his consistent effort from down to down, from season to season. His completeness is evidenced by the fact that he was the all-time single-season leader in sacks, but was likely a better run defender than pass rusher.

“It was his mental fortitude. Mentally he was just stronger than the guys he was playing against,” Jeff Feagles, the Giants’ punter during the 2007 championship season, told me.

“He came from a military background, and he was very disciplined about everything, to the point where he did everything the same every single day. He even spoke to the media on Thursdays. He motivated guys because he didn’t tolerate laziness.”

This isn’t to say that Strahan wasn’t an athletic freak. He was, just not in a way that was easily perceptible to the untrained eye.

“Coordinated explosiveness,” is how Fassel put it to me.

“Great athletes have a coordinated explosion of strength with no antagonistic movement. Michael would use his quickness to get upfield and get the tackle on his heels. Then he’s go into him and hit the guy with unbelievable force. Just exploded into him, and sometimes dump him right into the quarterback’s face. It’s like a boxer. He’s got everything coming into that one punch.”

(An example of Strahan’s dynamic coordinated explosiveness was his famous “Stomp you Out” gesture during his pre-game pep talks in 2007. Notice how far off the ground he gets, how smoothly his legs scissor in opposite directions, and how forcefully he comes down.)

Bob Whitfield, who played 15 years in the N.F.L., including two for the Giants, and faced off against Strahan several times, described in detail Strahan’s “ferocious speed-to-power move.”

“Stray had a tremendous get-off off the ball. And that speed advantage created so much power from leverage. So when he’d come inside – he’d joust you with right right arm, coming through the tackle’s left arm – he’d maintain his pass rush lane. Everything with Stray was always through the tackle.”

This was Strahan’s calling card: Unlike most gifted pass rushers, who line up on the quarterback’s blind side and take a wide path around the tackle, Strahan rushed from the front side and took a straight-on route. This made him more disruptive than even his sacks indicated. As Fassel said, “He probably got more sacks for other guys than he got for himself.”

Toward the end of his career, Strahan’s direct-path rushing style jibed particularly well with the talents of Osi Umenyiora, a classic around-the-bend speed-rusher, at the opposite defensive end spot.

But for all his talents as a pass rusher, Strahan was probably better against the run. This is even more impressive considering Strahan was of average size at most during his career, and spent a significant amount of his career as an undersize end. Strahan came into his career at 260 pounds, played the bulk of his career at 275, but then trimmed down to 255 during his latter years. Impressively, he maintained his playing strength through this.

Whitfield said Strahan’s quickness enabled him to position himself for optimal leverage. He also cited his unique football physiology.

“He wasn’t your typical large defensive end. He had this long, octopus-like build. His arms and legs had this unbelievable length to them. Because of his quickness off the ball, he’s getting his hands on you faster than you’re getting them on him. So he’s got leverage; he plays bigger than his size.”

“I would say ‘technician,’ but he didn’t use that many moves. The ones he did use, he refined.”

In other words, what enabled Michael Strahan to be one of the best players of all time was relatively straightforward. In the best of Giants traditions, Strahan didn’t reinvent the wheel, but rather found a few things to do really well and executed those things with admirable consistency. And whether he gets elected this year or next year, it amounted to Hall of Fame career.

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