3 stars aligned, Giants shining

Healthy, playing in unison, Sehorn, Strahan, Armstead boost hopes for title No. 3

The Defenses

January 28, 2001|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - The moment New York Giants middle linebacker Mike Barrow realized he had latched onto something extraordinary came shortly after his mild state of delusion subsided.

Barrow's condition came courtesy of a collision with Sam Garnes in one of the opening days of training camp. Barrow, who joined the team months earlier as a free agent, wasn't sure how good the Giants' defense would be this season.

Then Garnes, a fourth-year strong safety, clued him in. To hear Barrow tell what happened, Garnes was making a play on a Kerry Collins pass and the receiver. Barrow just happened to get in the way.

"Sam almost knocked me out. That's just how he is," Barrow said. "He'll hit you, even if you're on his team. He doesn't care who he hits."

Once the hit wore off, Barrow started to smile. A person who would try to knock out his own teammate was just the kind of player Barrow wanted on his side.

As training camp went on, Barrow realized Garnes' way of playing was not unique. The entire Giants defense had a swagger and ferociousness Barrow said he had not seen since college.

Back then at the University of Miami, Barrow played alongside fellow linebacker Jessie Armstead, who played the role of recruiter when Barrow considered signing with New York. Armstead told Barrow that, when healthy and not fighting with the offense, the Giants' defense was as good as any in the NFC.

Armstead went on to fill Barrow's head of what appeared to be grandiose championship thoughts, of re-creating the past when the two won a national title at Miami in the 1991 season. That day has arrived for Barrow, Armstead and the rest of the Giants' defense tonight as they take on the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV.

"We talked about winning together," Barrow said of Armstead. "He was like, `Now that I got you here with me, I know we are going to have success.' Because he knows what I can do, and I know what he can do.

"Near the end of the [NFC championship] game, he came to me and said, `Man, I told you we would be at this point. I'm glad you're here.' "

Three standouts

There's no question Barrow has had an impact this season for the Giants (he leads the team with 18 postseason tackles), but much of the success of the NFL's fifth-ranked squad came from guys who were already there.

Armstead, defensive end Michael Strahan and cornerback Jason Sehorn all lived up to their reputations as premier players at their positions this season.

That was not always the case. For Strahan and Sehorn, it was getting over injuries. Strahan played last season with two hyper-extended elbows, a torn thumb ligament and various other ailments.

It led to a 5 1/2 -sack season and criticism that after signing a four-year, $32.9 million deal, the player who had earned three straight trips to the Pro Bowl had become complacent.

"I told myself, `Enjoy yourself, no matter what happens, no matter what's going on on the other side of the ball,' " Strahan said. "And if you enjoy playing, you're going to go out and play better."

Strahan, who Armstead said is playing the best ball of his career, recorded 9 1/2 sacks in the 2000 regular season and has three more in two playoff games. His resurgence coincides with that of Sehorn, who missed all of the 1998 season and six games in 1999 with knee, hamstring and leg injuries.

Sehorn has returned to his 1997 form as one of the league's top cornerbacks. He made one of the most spectacular plays in this year's playoffs when he intercepted a Donovan McNabb pass. Sehorn batted the ball in the air while on the ground, caught it, then jumped to his feet and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown.

It was his first of two interceptions this postseason. Defensive coordinator John Fox said it is more than coincidence that the Giants' defense rises and falls depending on Sehorn's availability.

"We were blessed this season as a football team that we didn't have the injuries that we have had in the past," Fox said. "And that is exactly why we are here today."

As for Armstead, it was more rehabilitating his attitude than his body.

Armstead has been to four Pro Bowls, but when the offense struggled during past seasons, he often gave a frank assessment of the situation. And it led Giants coach Jim Fassel to put a gag order on Armstead last season.

The relationship has since been mended between Fassel and Armstead, who has been complimentary of the offense this season under Collins.

"This thing supposedly with me and Jessie and Michael [Strahan] last year, that took on a life of its own," Fassel said. "That got to be on the scale of the size of this tent because everything gets blown up a lot bigger. In fact, one of the things it has done to my relationship with some of those other guys is now, when I want something done, I say it to the team, and [Strahan and Armstead] make sure it's done."

Getting passed over

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