Having seen, Strahan believed

Giants: Seeing St. Louis win the NFL title last season put into perspective the mission Michael Strahan and New York seek to achieve.

January 25, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - Michael Strahan made his debut at a Super Bowl last year in Atlanta. Though he had gone to the festivities leading up to the game throughout his eight-year career with the New York Giants, Strahan had never actually been inside the stadium while it was being played.

"I couldn't bring myself to do it," he said earlier this week.

Strahan went to the Georgia Dome to watch the St. Louis Rams play the Tennessee Titans at the insistence of his wife, Jean. The down-to-the-wire victory by the Rams proved to be all Strahan could handle. Not only did he watch the game; by the end, Strahan was so drained, he felt as if he had played in it, too.

"I was twitching," he said. "I was watching to see what Kevin Carter [of the Rams] was doing, what Jevon Kearse [of the Titans] was doing. It was as if I was out trying to move people around."

Being at the game did something else for Strahan. It helped motivate the three-time Pro Bowl defensive end for this season. While the goal didn't seem realistic in training camp - the Giants were coming off a 7-9 season - or when the team lost two straight home games to fall to 7-4, it took shape in the past month.

Many on the team point to Strahan's play as one of the main reasons the Giants have won seven straight games going into Super Bowl XXXV against the Ravens on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

"He's played as good a defensive end as I've ever been around," Giants defensive coordinator John Fox said yesterday.

Though his statistics are not as impressive as they were when he had 14 sacks and was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1997 and added 15 sacks in 1998, he has been just as dominant. Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis might have received more acclaim during the playoffs, but Strahan, 29, is not far behind.

Strahan sacked Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb twice and forced him to fumble once in a 20-10 victory for the Giants in the NFC semifinals. Strahan added a sack on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper in a 41-0 rout in the conference championship game.

"This is the best year I've had," said Strahan, who had finished the regular season with 9 1/2 sacks, 65 tackles and four fumble recoveries. "Maybe I'm starting to figure it out."

A year ago, Strahan had what many considered the worst season since becoming a starter in 1994. His sacks were down to 5 1/2 , his tackles down to 56. His critics pointed to the new four-year, $32.9 million contract Strahan had signed. Strahan heard whispers that he was becoming too one-dimensional at pass rushing.

Strahan endured the criticism and never used a string of injuries (everything from two hyper-extended elbows to a cyst behind a knee to a torn ligament in a thumb) as an excuse.

"It was a frustrating thing to go through," said Strahan, who at his wife's urging went to see a sports psychologist toward the end of the 1999 season.

While earning his third straight trip to the Pro Bowl - he acknowledges that it was mainly on his reputation - Strahan made a vow to become a defensive force again. Things started to come around in mid-October, when Strahan made seven tackles against the Dallas Cowboys and helped pressure Troy Aikman into five interceptions.

Strahan kept going, right through to the Super Bowl.

Now comes Sunday's game and his matchup with 14-year veteran Harry Swayne. Considering the way the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Strahan destroyed Philadelphia's Jon Runyan (6-7, 330) and Minnesota's Korey Stringer (6-4, 346), and considering that many believe Swayne (6-5, 300) is on the downward swing of his own distinguished career, it appears to some as a mismatch.

It does not look that way to Strahan.

"I've played against Harry a number of times, and he's good," said Strahan, who in the past two playoff games has six tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble. "He understands what it takes. He's played in a couple of Super Bowls [with the winning Denver Broncos], so he has the edge in experience. He knows what I can do."

And what will Strahan do in what is easily the biggest game of his career?

"I can't tell you," he said with his gap-toothed smile.

One thing is certain. Strahan will be on the field, in uniform, playing in his first Super Bowl. It's certainly better than watching from the stands, as he did last year for the first time, and much more fun than being holed up in some hotel room, watching on television.

"It's a long time coming," he said.

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