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Mike Reiss | Football notes

A colossus among Giants

In Strahan's case, defense never rested

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / June 15, 2008

It didn't require an up-close look to grasp the greatness and magnetism of Michael Strahan, who officially capped his Hall of Fame career last week by announcing his retirement. He jumped out at fans across the country.

Strahan's career will ultimately be remembered by how many times he exploded through the line and swallowed up quarterbacks - his 141.5 sacks rank fifth in NFL history - but he was far from a one-dimensional player.

Talk to those who evaluated him, coached him, lined up next to him, and played against him - the nitty-gritty football guys - and one of the first things they say is how well he defended the run. They'll mention how he played left end, which meant some epic battles against mauling right tackles. They'll talk about his smarts, how he studied the opposition - not just linemen, but also quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends - for that one tip that could lead to a game-changing play.

Strahan was an all-around lineman, which wasn't necessarily the projection when late Giants general manager George Young selected him 40th in the 1993 draft out of tiny Texas Southern. He was selected mostly for his explosiveness.

"He wasn't a secret. He was an athletic pass rusher, and they are rare," said former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, who joined the Giants the next year and later extended Strahan's contract three times. "Next to quarterback, in my opinion, that's the most important position, and Michael had everything you wanted: good size, speed, smarts, and instincts."

Yet like many of the greats, Strahan was seemingly always seeking more. Accorsi came to realize that Strahan's first year, when the incomparable Lawrence Taylor taught the rookie how to be a top player.

"Michael was cerebral and determined to learn all he could about how to improve his game," said Accorsi. "I have said many times, he played the run better than any great pass rusher I ever saw, and that was something that improved and developed as his game did.

"Sometimes people run at pass rushers to take away their rush ability and pursuit. But that wasn't a good idea with Michael."

Instead, opponents most often ran away from him, realizing that he had uncommon strength for someone 290 pounds, as well as impeccable leverage because of his strong lower body.

Meanwhile, teammates seemed to gravitate toward his infectious personality, especially toward the end of his career. Take Media Day prior to Super Bowl XLII this year, when he turned the event into his own mini-Alicia Keys concert. Keys was the scheduled halftime entertainment for the Super Bowl, and Strahan began belting out her popular hit "No One" - to no one in particular among the thousands in attendance.

Teammates across the dome covered their ears, laughing and waving in Strahan's direction to spare them the high-pitched, piercing noise. Strahan simply smiled, revealing the signature gap between his front teeth.

Strahan surely played a major role in the Giants coming out loose and fearless in that Super Bowl.

The moment also reflected the fun Strahan had off the field, where he never seemed shy about being the center of attention. The bright lights of New York don't always mesh with players, but the once-in-awe youngster from Houston seemed to eventually thrive under them, despite knowing uncomfortable off-field issues such as his recent divorce would be front- and back-page material in the tabloids. Strahan also was criticized, along with Packers quarterback Brett Favre, for "staging" a sack in the 2001 season that helped him set the NFL season record with 22.5.

Strahan's self-promoting ways didn't always go over well in New York, so this is not to suggest it was all happy, all the time, but there was a nice symmetry to how it ended.

Strahan was praised by team president John Mara for setting the same type of championship example for the team's younger players that Taylor set for him.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo affectionately tells the story from a Super Bowl practice, when he was emphasizing the importance of every defender needing to look to the sideline before each play to get the signal. To get the message across, Strahan spread word in the huddle. Seconds later, Spagnuolo was struck by the sight of 11 players peering in his direction.

Such a story comes as no surprise to Accorsi, who joined the Giants in Strahan's second season, the year Taylor retired.

"I was with six Hall of Famers in my career and Michael will be the seventh," he said. "He's the best defensive player I have been with."

Ravin' about this Raven

Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who announced his retirement Thursday, earned the deserved reputation as one of the game's premier pass protectors.

Teams will be looking for the "next Ogden" for years to come, but don't let that overshadow the boldness that the Ravens - specifically, general manager Ozzie Newsome - displayed in selecting Ogden fourth in the 1996 draft.

That was the first year the Ravens were setting up shop in Baltimore, in the wake of a vitriolic move from Cleveland. Surely, fans were excited about having a team in the city for the first time since the Colts departed in 1984, and owner Art Modell, with ticket sales in mind, was looking to add sizzle with the Ravens' first-ever draft choice.

Picking a left tackle wasn't exactly what Modell had in mind. If he had his druthers, the pick probably would have been troubled running back Lawrence Phillips.

But Newsome, in his first year on the job, held his ground on Ogden. It's the type of decision - coupled with his other first-rounder that year, linebacker Ray Lewis - that helped him immediately be considered one of the game's top GMs.

Ogden was no slam dunk. A massive talent from UCLA, he had not played spring football because he was a shot putter on the track and field squad, and taking into account his sometimes-aloof personality, some scouts wondered whether he loved football enough.

At 6 feet 9 inches, there was also concern about whether he had the body type and center of gravity to be successful, and whether the game came too easily to him. There was also the issue of his signability, with one club shying away because his agent, Marvin Demoff, was considered a shrewd negotiator.

But the Ravens, thanks to Newsome's resolve, took the plunge and ultimately benefited from seeing Ogden appear in 177 regular-season games and help the club win a Super Bowl in 2000.

Evans's approach is a whole new kettle of fish

What do footballs have in common with kettle bells? And what links the Russian military and the Patriots?

Allow running back Heath Evans to explain.

In an attempt to invigorate his body after eight NFL seasons, Evans started a new training regimen that ditches traditional weightlifting in favor of kettle bells. A native of Palm Beach, Fla., he is spending the next 41 days in South Florida with Pavel Tsatsouline, who trains elite units of the Russian military with kettle bells.

A kettle bell is a type of weight that, from afar, looks almost like an oversized padlock. Proponents say they are better than dumbbells, providing a more functional workout.

In a sport where every X and O is dissected until the next game, less attention is seemingly focused on the players' preparation. That's surprising, given that a player's body is one of his greatest assets.

"I don't think you go away from what you've always done, what got you here, but for me this is all about finding new ways to challenge my body," the 29-year-old Evans said. "[Patriots strength and conditioning coach] Mike [Woicik] and I talk about it all the time, trying to find ways to get stronger in other areas.

"I feel like if I maintain my strength for four or five years, I'm plenty strong enough to play in the league, but this is geared toward perfecting my strength and making my strength more functional on the field."

Evans uses the bench press as an example.

"When do you lie on the field and bench someone off you?" he asked. "The idea of kettle bells is to make the strength more conditioned, more flexible, and more explosive."

Evans is combining the kettle bell work with a "go raw" diet suggested by South Florida health expert Jordan Rubin, who has also helped Tom Brady and Matt Light. That means a menu filled with raw cream, ceviche (a.k.a seafood salad), and raw sockeye salmon.

Etc.

It wasn't a very good year
When the Bears released running back Cedric Benson last week, it highlighted how poorly the top draft selections from 2005 have fared in the NFL. Benson was the fourth selection in the draft, and he's now out of a job. Any of the league's other 31 clubs could have claimed him on waivers, and not one took the bait. Yet Benson isn't alone among top-10 picks looking to reemerge. Cornerback Pacman Jones (No. 6) and receivers Troy Williamson (No. 7) and Mike Williams (No. 10) are already with their second teams. Meanwhile, quarterback Alex Smith (No. 1) is in a battle to hold down the starting job in San Francisco, while Antrel Rolle (No. 8) is being moved to safety in Arizona after failing to excel at cornerback. It's difficult to criticize running backs Ronnie Brown (No. 2) and Cadillac Williams (No. 5) - as well as cornerback Carlos Rogers (No. 9) - who are attempting to come back from serious knee injuries that knocked them out in 2007. But at this point, other than Browns receiver Braylon Edwards (No. 3), this looks like the shakiest top 10 in recent memory. In a do-over, Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (No. 11) would probably be the No. 1 pick.

Hurting for an explanation
Simply bizarre. That's about the only way to describe the first day of Bengals mandatory minicamp last week, with receiver Chad Johnson's trade demands still hanging over the club like a cloud. Reporters wondering whether Johnson would show up watched him trot onto the field for practice 12 minutes late. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said Johnson was sidelined because of an ankle injury that could require surgery. Yet the Bengals later said Johnson passed a physical and reported that Johnson told them he had a back ailment that kept him out of practice. Rosenhaus later said he had a document in which the Bengals said Johnson had an ankle injury and recommended surgery. The Bengals countered, saying Johnson's ankle was not 100 percent in 2007, yet they have documentation from Johnson saying he's fine and no surgery is required. On the second day of camp, Johnson claimed he was happy and essentially asked, "What's the big deal?" What a circus.

Dancing with the Dolphins
Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor would presumably like a trade to a contender, although he hasn't been as direct with his message as Johnson. The latest is that the Dolphins have told Taylor they'd like him back, as he has more value to the team than what they would receive in trade. So unless another team steps up its offer, the ball is in Taylor's court. He did not report to a recent mandatory minicamp, and he was fined approximately $8,000 for each day he missed. Taylor was attending his brother's high school graduation and had other personal business.

Carrying some baggage
It's been a tough offseason for some big-name running backs. Shaun Alexander, the NFL MVP in 2005, was cut by the Seahawks after being deemed too expensive. The Broncos released Travis Henry after just one season, as coach Mike Shanahan cited a lack of commitment. The Bears finally reached the point of no return with Benson, whose off-field troubles were mounting. And the Bills have to be concerned about second-year man Marshawn Lynch, whose sports utility vehicle was involved in a recent hit-and-run accident in which a 27-year-old woman suffered a bruised hip and a cut that required seven stitches. Three Bills teammates have been subpoenaed by a grand jury looking into the accident. Lynch's unavailability would be a crushing blow, as he's easily the club's most important offensive player.

Extra points
The Browns' decision to cut center LeCharles Bentley, a top free agent signing in 2006 who ruptured his patellar tendon in his first training camp practice with the club and just last week passed a physical, came after Bentley asked for the move. A fresh start is probably best for both sides . . . When Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren missed two practices because of an undisclosed surgical procedure, offensive coordinator Gil Haskell took the reins, not secondary coach Jim Mora, who will become the head coach next season. That might be tied to the Seahawks' concerns regarding the perception that Mora is infringing on Holmgren's turf this year, Holmgren's 10th and final season . . . The Ravens are hoping 2007 supplemental draft choice Jared Gaither (fifth round) will step in at left tackle to fill the void left by Jonathan Ogden's retirement . . . Want to play golf with Randy Moss? The Patriots receiver is hosting a tournament in West Virginia June 28, with proceeds providing educational and recreational assistance to West Virginia children in need. For more information, visit Moss's website, therealrandymoss.com.

Did you know?
Based on records from the 2007 season, which is always risky considering how much things change from year to year, these teams have the toughest schedules: Steelers (.598), Colts (.594), Jaguars (.559), Vikings (.551), and Ravens (.551).

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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