Strahan: Still on top

No one enjoys reminiscing about sports history more than Ernie Accorsi, the Giants general manager, and he has no shortage of opinions on best, worst, highs, lows, winners, losers and all-time greats and busts. Accorsi, though, prefers not to say who he believes should and should not be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as he feels stating his case puts undo pressure on the selection committee, many of whom are sportswriters who have a personal relationship with Accorsi.

Yet when it comes to Michael Strahan, Accorsi isn't bashful about coming clean with his view.

"I certainly think he's a Hall of Famer, I don't think there's any question about it,'' Accorsi said. "[Former sportswriting legend] John Steadman used to say there's a difference between an All-Pro and a Hall of Famer, the Hall of Famer has to dominate his era and I think Strahan has dominated his era.''

Strahan's worthiness is not really debatable, according to Accorsi, and given the way the Giants defensive end is adding to his legacy by playing some of the finest football of his career, his nomination after he retires may become a mere formality.

As the Giants this season gear up for a playoff run and look to play in the post-season for the first time since 2002, Strahan is again a defensive catalyst at an age (34) when many others are experiencing a downturn in production. Strahan hasn't sipped from the fountain of youth but he sure looks younger and friskier.

"I'm not sure anybody's seen anything quite like that,'' Tom Coughlin said. "His love of the game and the way he approaches the game and the enthusiasm and zest that he brings to work and practice and to the games on Sunday. He could be 25 years old and you wouldn't know it.''

After watching Tiki Barber carry the ball 30 times in a 17-10 victory over the Cowboys, Strahan gushed about Barber, saying there's not a running back in the NFL he'd rather have on his side. Returning the compliment, Barber said Strahan is one of the best defensive players he's ever seen.

"As far as the defensive end position I would say definitely the best,'' Barber said. "As far as all defensive players he's in the top three.''

The rage around the Giants in the second half of the season is Osi Umenyiora; he might be the best young defensive end in the game, a budding star, but he's helped mightily by the presence of Strahan on the other side of the line. How rare it is that as Umenyiora grows he can study a master at work and absorb like a sponge all that Strahan has to offer in terms of excellence, durability and dependability.

In subtle ways, Umenyiora has watched every move. Strahan tried to get Umenyiora as a rookie to work out with him, to sculpt his body, to get stronger for the rigors of pounding away at bigger offensive tackles. Osi did not see the need. A year later, Umenyiora realized the wisdom in Strahan's methods and now he's grown, physically and professionally.

Through 12 games, Umenyiora was tied with Oakland's Derrick Burgess for the NFL lead with 11 sacks, yet he did not consider himself the top dog on his own team. "As long as Strahan's on this team it's always going to be about Strahan,'' Umenyiora said. "I'm just going to play my role and do exactly what I can.''

Coming off a torn pectoral muscle that forced him to miss the final eight games of the 2004 season, Strahan in his 13th year with the Giants remains the leader of the defensive pack, despite the emergence of Umenyiora or the arrival of the wonderful Antonio Pierce. The gradual decline expected of those in their mid-30s hasn't hit, as Strahan smartly streamlined his body to a svelte 250-something pounds, making him leaner and quicker with no loss of strength.

Several years ago Strahan and Barber had a falling out over comments Barber made concerning Strahan's contract but, "that's completely under the rug,'' Barber insists. "We're as close as we can be now.'' As Barber improves with age he marvels that the older Strahan is doing the same.

"It's amazing and kind of inspirational to all the old guys around,'' Barber said. "This is the best I've seen him play, absolutely.''

Barring full-scale muggings in the remaining games, Strahan – who had 9.5 sacks through 12 games – will surpass double-figures for the sixth time. His career total through 12 games of 127.5 sacks was 10th on the NFL's all-time list. With a strong finish, Strahan could get the sacks he needs to catch Lawrence Taylor, the standard-bearer among the Giants with a team-record 132.5. Strahan quite conceivably could finish as the No. 3 sack-artist of all time, behind only Bruce Smith and Reggie White.

Pounding a quarterback to the turf is what makes the highlights and garners the huge signing bonuses and few have ever done it better than Strahan. Alone, that coveted skill would get Strahan into the Hall of Fame but there's always been so much more to his game. Strahan always plays the run with a vengeance, pursuing and stalking running backs often struggling to outrun him.

"I don't ever remember a defensive end who plays the run better than him,'' said Accorsi, who does not use superlatives lightly when discussing matters of sports history. "The sack is a home run and he certainly is going to go down as one of the top sack guys of all time. But he's incredible against the run.''

Strahan has made a big believer out of Coughlin, even though at first the relationship between the two was strained amid a power struggle. Coughlin learned soon enough what Dan Reeves and Jim Fassel knew before him: No one practices harder or plays better than Strahan.

"It's funny,'' Barber recounted, "before some games or when things are going bad in the middle of a game he'll come up to me and say 'You handle your side, I'll handle mine.' We're kind of like the elder statesmen on both sides of the ball, and we still carry a lot of weight because we're both playing the best we've played.''

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