Piercing Playmaker

It might take the rest of the league till the end of the season to find out what teams in the NFC East have known since 2004: Antonio Pierce is one of the best middle linebackers in the league. Problem is he's had to work seven times as hard as first-round, high-pedigree MLBs like Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis to gain notoriety.

That's what happens when all 32 teams in all seven rounds snub you during the draft. For Pierce, not being drafted in the 2001 NFL Draft was like watching 246 kids being picked ahead of him on the playground. It was a feeling of worthlessness. A stinging reminder that no one thought he was good enough on which to even take a late-round flier.

After making eye-popping plays at The University of Arizona, Pierce sat by his phone for two days waiting to get the phone call that never came. It was hard for him to swallow when he heard that final, even harder-to-pronounce name, Tevita Ofahengaue, a tight end from Brigham Young drafted by the team in nearest proximity to Pierce, the Arizona Cardinals.

A few days later, Pierce signed with the Washington Redskins as the ultimate long-shot, an undrafted free agent. But then-coach Marty Schottenheimer, an old linebacker himself, liked the all-out toughness he saw in Pierce and thought he might be able to make it.

"He's as smart as any football player I have coached and I have been doing it a long time," Schottenheimer remarked.

Pierce proved him right, by not only making the team, but starting eight games as a rookie when LaVar Arrington got hurt. He played well right away and notched 64 tackles. If Pierce had been a first-round baby, his performance would have been the talk around the league. But being an undrafted free agent, hardly anyone even noticed. The next two seasons he unselfishly returned to being a special-teams standout. Then in 2004 starting middle linebacker, and former Giant, Mike Barrow, suffered a season-ending injury in preseason and new/old coach, Joe Gibbs, turned to Pierce to fill the hole.

Pierce led the Redskins in tackles with 160, including eight games with 10 or more. With Pierce in the starting lineup, Washington's defense improved from No. 25 in the NFL in 2003 to third in the league in 2004. Said, Arrington at the time, "He's probably the biggest reason why we're a top defense."

Prior to that breakout season, Gibbs had underestimated Pierce's starting ability, saying, "He will play great on special teams – if he gets an opportunity."

With the monster season under his belt, Pierce anxiously waited for his big payday to arrive. Like draft day, it never came. Apparently, Gibbs and the rest of the Redskins brass were not convinced Pierce was the real deal and that he was unworthy of being rewarded with a big deal.

"The only thing with the Redskins is they just believed the one year I had . . . was a fluke," says Pierce, shaking his head. "That mysteriously someone made all those tackles and plays and he wouldn't come back next year to do that. That's kind of disheartening when you've been there for four years and made all those tackles and plays and he wouldn't come back next year. They didn't see that I got the opportunity and took advantage of it."

The Giants sure did. When the 2005 free agency opened that March, New York signed the 6-1, 240-pound stalwart to a six-year deal. They were not disappointed.

After an average start by the Giants defense last year, the unit meshed and Pierce was one of the key impact players. For 13 games, Pierce stopped 79 ball carriers in their tracks, unassisted.

One of his best games was against his old coach and team, Gibbs and the Redskins. In front of the home fans, Pierce led the Giants in an embarrassing 36-0 shutout of the high-powered Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, Gibbs-led team.

A few weeks later, Pierce's play culminated in a dramatic 17-10 victory over the Cowboys, punctuated with his scooping up a Drew Bledsoe fumble and darting 12 yards for the winning score.

Unfortunately the following week against the Eagles, Pierce suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him out the rest of the season.

"I think I was playing my best football here at the time I got hurt," Pierce says. "And I think our team was playing its best team defense, since I've been here . . . for two or three games no one scored on us. It was tough from that standpoint to have your season cut short."

The Giants defense felt it worse. After Pierce was shelved, New York allowed three straight runners to go over 100 yards: Eagles backup Ryan Moats, subbing for an injured Brian Westbrook, torched the Giants with 114 yards on 11 carries and two TDs; then Larry Johnson posted 167 yards and two scores; and in the rematch Portis gained 108 yards and a TD.

Pierce's absence was noticed most in the playoffs when the host Giants were shut out by Carolina, 23-0.

Said former Giant safety, Brent Alexander, at the time of Pierce's injury: "When you're talking about replacing Antonio Pierce, I mean, it's hard to do. He's got a lot to say when he's on the field, he's very emotional, he's into the game, brings a lot of energy. He's a great football player. It's definitely a big blow to this defense.''

Now back 100 percent healthy, Pierce sees a lot of this year's defense in last year's.

"Last year our defense wasn't very good in the beginning of the season. We were winning games, though, that's why no one really talked about it," he said. "But in the middle from November-to-early December, before I got hurt, we had a good stretch of games. That's when the good teams stand out."

Like the rest of the Giants defense, Pierce is confident that the team will finish strong and head into the playoffs. For him it's not a question of having the right players in the lineup; it's working hard to meet the team's high expectations.

"It doesn't matter (that we have star players). When you're losing, you're losing," he said. "You are what you are. We can be star players and star-quality guys, but if you're losing, you're losing. As a team and as players, no one can say they're playing their best football just yet."

That kind of leadership and intensity is not lost on the guys that have lined up with Pierce. Known as one of the most prepared players in the league, he's closer to the all-time film geek, Peyton Manning, than most players when it comes to film study.

Yet, film study aside, former Giant Nick Greisen, now with the Jaguars, perhaps crystallizes Pierce's style of play best when he said of the formidable linebacker, "He's kind of a bad-ass."

Even if Pierce finally does attain the Pro Bowl honors he deserves, chances are he won't be satisfied. Because of being snubbed in the draft, he plays with a perpetual chip on his shoulder.

"It never leaves. They're some of the many doubters that doubted me when I first came into the league," Pierce said. "I watch more and more guys not make it every year on the roster. I think there's only something like 10 or so guys left from that draft of linebackers. You tell me who was right or wrong?"

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