Had it not been for an unusual set of circumstances, not the least of which was his own problem with his pass rushing technique, Michael Strahan might not be preparing to stand before his teammates, coaches, family, friends and peers Saturday to accept the greatest honor bestowed upon a professional football player.
This was 1996, when Strahan had not yet blossomed into one of the best left ends in NFL history. He had played at right end the previous three seasons, and had hoped to stay there the rest of his career. After all, it's the right end who traditionally gets the most opportunities to rush the passer, and Strahan, coming off his best season with 71/2 sacks, felt that was his best spot.
But due to a rash of injuries that left the Giants thin at left end, as well as defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's intuitive feeling that a problem with Strahan's footwork could be fixed more easily by switching sides, he was moved to a position that traditionally involved more run-stopping responsibilities and fewer pass rush opportunities.
"The right side is where you typically put your best pass rusher, but there were some issues with Michael's righthanded stance, which was his natural stance," Nolan, now the Falcons defensive coordinator, recalled of Strahan's position switch. "He had to take a false step to get his feet right with what he had to do, so in my opinion, it felt like it was a natural move to put him on the left side, because he didn't have to change anything with his pass rush. It was more natural for him because he didn't have to take that false step."
Neither Nolan nor Strahan could not have imagined just how effective the position switch would become. In fact, Strahan initially scoffed at the idea.
"Of course I was upset," Strahan said when told of the switch. "It's not like I'm going to learn it in a week. Now we have both defensive end positions out of whack. It's like we had one flat, and now we've got two flat tires."
But the move laid the groundwork for one of the most impressive careers by a defensive lineman. Joining Hall of Famers Deacon Jones of the Rams and Reggie White of the Eagles and Packers, Strahan became part of an elite group of left ends who dominated the sport, both in defending the run and rushing the passer. The former Giants star will take his rightful place next to White and Jones and every other former NFL star when he is inducted Saturday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
"It's nothing I had in my brain, nothing I imagined when I started out that I'd be joining these guys in the Hall of Fame," Strahan said. "I'm honored to be doing so. It's the No. 1 honor in the game. You're recognized as one of the best that's ever played the game. There's not much more you could say."
Strahan finished his 15-year career with 1411/2 career sacks, the most in franchise history and the fifth most in NFL history. Of the top 20 all-time sack leaders, only Reggie White (198) and Strahan played left end. To those he played with, and to those he played against, including opposing coaches, Strahan's enshrinement is well deserved.
"Michael Strahan was a player who could disrupt your plan because he was such an outstanding pass rusher who could also play the run," former Packers and Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "There were only a few guys where we'd go into the meetings with the offensive guys and you'd say we've got to stop this guy. Strahan was one of them."
Holmgren flashed back to a game in 2002, when his Seahawks prepared to visit the Giants for an early-season matchup.
"We weren't as good as they were that year, and our right tackle had been injured, so we had to play Floyd Womack [normally a guard] at tackle," Holmgren said. "For me to try and limit my offensive thinking was one of the seven sins, but I went into that game focused on Strahan and knowing we had to have a running back or a tight end on him every play. It changed a lot of stuff, but it was our only chance. I said to my coaches, 'We do this and we have a chance to win a field goal game, or we don't, and we'll lose 34-10.' "
The Seahawks wound up losing, 9-6.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid, the former Eagles coach who had his share of matchup problems figuring out how to deal with Strahan, said he would fundamentally change his entire game plan just because of Strahan, who regularly dominated Eagles right tackle Jon Runyan.
"We started the 'chip' game because of him," said Reid, referring to a technique where a running back or tight end would "chip" or hit Strahan to disrupt his pass rush. "We changed our pass protection for him. We played him twice a year every year, and it seemed like forever. He was a great leader. He was the guy that was going out there and saying to his defense, 'This is what we're going to do.' He made everybody around him better."
Former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who spent plenty of Sunday afternoons running away from -- and caught by -- Strahan, said the Eagles' "game plans during the week always started with him. We had to stop him in order for us to be successful. I realize he sacked me more than any quarterback he ever faced (121/2), so he led by example."
Former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi was unambiguous when heaping praise on Strahan.
"Michael Strahan is the best of the great pass rushers that I've ever seen play the run," Accorsi said. "So many pass rushers will sell out to the pass rush and get rolled against the run. Michael didn't do that. I remember George Young taught me something very early on about pass rushers. He said, 'To be great, you have to beat the double team.' And in all the years I was with Michael, he always beat the double teams."
Strahan now reaps the ultimate reward of his brilliant career, a 15-year run he capped with a championship after the 2007 season. After walking off into his NFL sunset with a Super Bowl ring, he's set to join the sport's immortals in Canton.