Michael Strahan got to go out as a champion, but where does he fit in the pantheon of all-time greats at his position?
Strahan ended his 15-year career Monday by announcing his retirement after leading the New York Giants to a victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII in February. He retires with 141½ career sacks, well below the likes of Bruce Smith (200) and Reggie White (198) on the all-time list.
But there's at least one former counterpart who believes Strahan measures up with Smith and White.
Armstrong has studied all the greats. He started his career playing alongside Richard Dent and spent his twilight teaching Jason Taylor the fine art of getting a sack. Armstrong has marveled at the pure athleticism of Smith and the brute strength of White. To him, Strahan is the ideal mix.
"The thing that strikes me about Strahan is balance," Armstrong said. "He was stronger than you thought and more athletic than you thought … when you watched Bruce (Smith) on tape it was kind of like watching Barry Sanders play running back. There were times when you just said, 'I can't do that.' With Reggie (White), it was the same thing when you watched him use his raw power. He was just so strong. There was wow factor with both of them.
"With Mike, there wasn't a wow factor, but when you really studied him, break down the things he didn't do as well as something else, you didn't find a weakness. He played the run as well as he rushed the passer. He played hard all the time, chasing plays down from the backside. You saw it this year still, how hard he played."
Former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi sensed a similar type of balance in Strahan's ability. Accorsi, who ran the Giants from 1994-07, watched the vast majority of Strahan's career up close.
"He's the greatest defensive player I was ever with in my career," Accorsi said, although he was quick to point out that he wasn't with the Giants when Lawrence Taylor stalked quarterbacks. "The truly great pass rushers don't always like to play the run. When (Vince) Lombardi coached, he would always run at (Hall of Famer) Deacon Jones.
"With Strahan, you better not run at Mike because he played the run as well as he rushed the passer and he took great pride in it … I've been around six players who made it to the Hall of Fame (Johnny Unitas, Ozzie Newsome, John Mackey, Ted Hendricks, Jack Ham and Franco Harris) and, as much as I know how the voters hate it when you say things like this, I think there's no question Mike is the seventh."
This is not New York-centric hyperbole propping up Strahan, the way some people tried to argue a year ago that former Giant and Strahan teammate Tiki Barber had put together a sure-Hall of Fame career. It's also not the kind of wistful emotion that makes some people believe that Brett Favre is the greatest quarterback ever.
This is the measured thinking of a guy who played and studied the game. Armstrong also spent 15 years in the NFL. He had 106 sacks and made a Pro Bowl. He helped Oakland reach the Super Bowl in 2002.
Sadly, a lot of people on the periphery of the game are just now starting to understand and value that position. Many defensive ends have been discounted as merely pass rushers with little love for playing run defense. Even reporters who vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame haven't taken a lot of time to understand the value of the position, which is why guys like Dent and Charles Haley have yet to get in the Hall of Fame.
Inside the game, great defensive ends rank second only to quarterbacks in terms of overall importance, as just about every scout, coach and executive will tell you. They are extraordinarily hard to find and if your team is going to be a serious contender, it better have either a great quarterback or a guy who can put a great quarterback on the ground.
Last year, the Giants saw former No. 1 pick Eli Manning make great progress in the playoffs along the way to a title. However, the biggest key to their championship run was having a defensive line that could stop great passers like Favre, Tony Romo and Tom Brady in the playoffs.
Strahan was the leader of that group, even if his nine sacks ranked third on the team behind Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck.
"The things Stray can do makes everybody better," Tuck said last week as he hoped that his teammate would give it one more go. "You see the way he plays and what that forces the offense to do … but it's more than that. He has taught me so much about playing the game. Hand placement, how to set up offensive linemen, everything."
The announcement of Strahan's retirement is not surprising and the Giants are prepared to move on, featuring a line that includes Pro Bowler Umenyiora, Tuck, situational tackle Mathias Kiwanuka and veteran newcomer Renaldo Wynn.
However, judging where Strahan ranks among defensive ends is not as clear cut.
- Reggie White