Saturday, August 17, 2013

Sapp Off the Mark with Comments on Rice and Strahan

By Dan Trammel

Warren Sapp loves to talk. One of his latest outbursts is his argument that Simeon Rice was better than Michael Strahan. As we in the Highway to Hall like to debate such statements, let’s analyze this one.

First, in fairness to Mr. Sapp, let’s review his actual statement:

“For all of the people who are not historians of the football as I am, Michael Strahan started his career at right defensive end in New York to replace Lawrence Taylor. The great Lawrence Taylor. In those three years, [Strahan] had 12 sacks, which averages out to four a year. So they put ‘B-U-S’ and they said, ‘Wait, before we call him a bust, let’s move him to the left side.’ Hey, there you go. Ten-and-a-half sacks a year, 128. He’s a great left end. Simeon Rice [had] 122 [sacks] at right end and ain’t never been moved.”

Now, let’s take a look at Strahan’s career and whether Sapp’s assessment is accurate.

Strahan was drafted by the Giants in the 2nd round of the 1993 NFL Draft out of Texas Southern.[1] After tearing ligaments in his foot in the opening preseason game, Strahan was limited to one tackle and one sack in 9 games (zero starts). That was in fact Lawrence Taylor’s last season. Following the departure of Taylor, the Giants switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. In 1994, Strahan became the starting right defensive end, totaling 4.5 sacks in 15 games. The next season, Strahan increased his sack total to 7.5. After the season, he turned down a five-year deal worth a reported $10 million so he could become a free agent after the 1996 season.

If Strahan was a bust, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to offer him a five-year contract. Furthermore, Strahan’s rookie season was mostly lost due to injury, so his 12 sacks were totaled in 2 seasons. It was at this point that the Giants moved Strahan to the left side, but it was not because he was a bust.

In the 1996 NFL Draft, the Giants used its first round pick (number 5 overall) on Oklahoma defensive end Cedric Jones. Jones left Oklahoma as the school’s all-time sack leader with 31.5. He had 4.8 speed and was widely regarded to be the best defensive end against the run in that year’s draft class, which also featured Simeon Rice, Tony Brackens, Regan Upshaw, and Duane Clemons. Unfortunately for Jones and the Giants, Jones was hindered by several things including: (1) arthroscopic knee surgery following his senior season; (2) eye surgery causing him to miss minicamp; (3) a contract holdout which led to Jones reporting to training camp late; (4) hamstring issues at the start of camp; and (5) blindness in left eye.
It is this last issue that received the most publicity. Jones was blind as a result of a birth defect that was not detected until his freshman year of college. A doctor supposedly corrected the problem in his senior year by performing a cornea transplant. Unfortunately, he suffered several post-surgical complications, which resulted in multiple laser surgeries. All of these issues led to slow development.

Nonetheless, on the day Jones reported to training camp, Strahan was moved to left defensive end, a move he did not care for. "If somebody asked you to cover the Jets, would you be upset?" Strahan asked reporters after the switch. “Of course I was upset.”[2] Head Coach Dan Reeves stated the move was experimental, apparently bothered by the appearance that they handed a starting position to a rookie on his first day.[3]  In Strahan’s words, "The reason they gave me was, they feel we don't have another defensive end they think can handle left defensive end. And they want to leave (Robert) Harris inside. And being that (left end) is the strong running position, that's where they wanted the most experienced, or the best defensive end."[4]

Strahan did not want the move to be strictly experimental. He said if they planned to flip-flop him, he would rather move permanently so he could learn the new position. "I had two choices," Strahan explained. "I could have been upset about it and said, 'You know what? I have one more year here. I need to play well this year, so I'm not moving because I don't want to be screwed up.' Being that I want to win some games and ultimately I want to play, I'm going to move there and I'm going to try it."[5]

This team-first attitude came as no surprise to those who know Strahan.  According to Strahan’s college coach, “Strahan could have had had 25 or 30 sacks if we’d let him just rush. But he sacrifices his sacks for the team. He’s the consummate team player. If you need him to cover a running back, he does that. If you need him to be on the field goal team, he does that. He also will take out blockers so others can make tackles."[6]

This is in stark contrast to Simeon Rice, who was criticized throughout his career for being a selfish player. As stated earlier, Simeon Rice was selected in the same draft as Cedric Jones. Some of the draft reviews of Rice were less than glowing. “The Big Ten's all-time sack leader, potentially the next Bruce Smith, if only he would grow up. He was being touted as the No. 1 overall pick last season until he fell asleep against Penn State and now will probably be taken behind teammate Kevin Hardy, who can get to the passer quicker.”[7] Another preview described him as a “Gifted pass-rusher sure to go early in draft. . . . Set Big Ten record of 44 1/2 career sacks. . . . Nothing special against the run. . . . Some analysts believe he doesn't always play to his potential.”[8]

The Arizona Cardinals selected him 3rd overall, one spot before the Baltimore Ravens selected future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden. Head Coach Vince Tobin said, “[W]hat we decided is that an offensive lineman can only help you not lose a game; a pass-rusher can win a game for you with one play.”[9] In other news, Tobin was fired 7 games into the 2000 season with a 28-43 career record.

Although the Cardinals only won 7 games in Rice’s rookie campaign, he did tie the then NFL rookie record (held by Leslie O’Neal) with 12.5 sacks on his way to earning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Both Rice and the Cards regressed in his second season in which his sack total fell to 5 and the Cards sunk to 4-12. The Cardinals reached new-found success in 1998, however.

Prior to Rice’s arrival, the Cardinals had not reached the playoffs since 1982 and had not had a winning record since 1984. That changed in 1998 when the Cards finished 9-7 and earned a wild card berth. Although the Cards defense finished 24th in yards and 21st in points that year, the defense was pivotal down the stretch. The Cards sat at 6-7 after a loss to the New York Giants on December 6, but reeled off 3 consecutive victories to finish the season. They defeated the Philadelphia Eagles (20-17 in OT), New Orleans Saints (19-17), and San Diego Chargers (16-13).

Of course, the Eagles (3-13), Saints (6-10), and Chargers (5-11) all finished with losing records. And the quarterbacks in these epic battles were Koy Detmer, Kerry Collins, and Craig Whelihan. Whelihan in particular struggled, finishing 16 of 40 for 214 yards and 4 interceptions, all to Kwamie Lassiter. Despite facing these illustrious quarterbacks, the Cards were gouged on the ground giving up 141 yards on 30 carries to Duce Staley (Eagles) and 127 yards on 23 carries to Terrell Fletcher (Chargers). But they got the necessary wins, and then upset the Dallas Cowboys in the 1st round of the playoffs 20-7.

Rice finished the 1998 season with 10 sacks. In 1999, Rice improved his total to 16.5, earning his first Pro Bowl selection and being named 2nd Team All-Pro (behind Kevin Carter and Jevon Kearse). The Cards did not have the same success, however, slipping to 6-10. After the season, the Cardinals used the Franchise Tag on Rice, which led to a contract holdout and resentment between the parties. After missing the first game of the 2000 season, Rice returned to the lineup, and finished the season with 7.5 sacks in a 3-13 season wrecked by injuries.

The Cards used the Franchise Tag on Aeneas Williams following the 2000 season, which allowed Rice to leave via Free Agency. One of the suitors at that time, ironically, was the New York Giants, who were seeking a replacement for Cedric Jones. On Tuesday, March 6, 2001, Rice was wined and dined by Michael Strahan himself.[10] The Giants viewed Rice as a good fit because they had the number 2 ranked defense in the NFL against the run but needed a pass-rushing right end, as Jones had only 3 ½ sacks the previous season. Giants head coach Jim Fassel was an assistant with the Cardinals when Rice was drafted, and indicated Rice would respond in a winning environment, particularly one full of team-first veterans.[11]

It turns out Fassel was correct. Rice needed a change of scenery, which he found in Tampa. After the Giants signed Kenny Holmes, Rice signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to join a defensive line that featured first round picks Marcus Jones, Anthony McFarland, and future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp. Despite setting a team record with 55 sacks in 2000, right defensive end Chidi Ahanotu contributed only 3 ½. So an upgrade was needed. Rice signed a contract with no signing bonus and only a $1-million base salary the first season (although the overall terms of the deal were for 5-years and 34 million dollars). Rice bet on himself and the gamble paid off.

As Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said, “We never had the pure speed rusher on the outside at right defensive end. So you put (Rice) out there and make that left tackle turn out, that leaves that left guard more man-to-man on Warren Sapp.”[12] Rice terrorized quarterbacks during his first 5 seasons in Tampa, recording double-digit sack totals each year. He was named to 2 Pro Bowls, named 1st Team All-Pro in 2002 and 2nd Team All-Pro in 2003, and helped the Bucs make 3 playoff appearances and win a Super Bowl title. He totaled 4 sacks in the Bucs 2002 playoff run, including 2 in the Super Bowl.

Rice was a perfect fit. Tampa was a team that did not like to blitz. Their success hinged on the front four’s ability to generate a pass rush. Rice was an integral part of that. But he also developed other aspects of his game. According to one NFL talent evaluator, “When Rice first got to Tampa, people were saying he was a liability against the run and that he wasn’t interested in that part of the game. To some degree that was true. But that’s not the case now. He’s gotten much better against the run, Simeon has. I think their coach down there [Rod Marinelli] has a lot to do with that. He really gets after those guys and he’s made him more of a complete player.”[13]

Unfortunately, defensive line coach Marinelli was named the head coach of the Detroit Lions in 2006. When Marinelli left, the wheels fell off. Rice appeared to lack motivation to play, which led to the return of old criticism. “When things are going well, when a team is winning, Rice is a delightful side dish. When the defense is smothering opponents, when his sacks are coming with incredible frequency, it is easy to laugh at his runaway bluster and admire Rice’s ability…When a team is losing, however, when Rice has been reduced to a bystander, he turns from character to cartoon. In those times, Rice looks like a one-trick pony, a pass-rusher who observes while waiting for the game to get around to third and 11. He is the $6-million man, and the urge is to check his warranty.[14]

In 2006, everyone appeared to have something to say about Rice. According to Strahan, “If you just want to pay attention to the other stuff and just run up the field, then you’re going to be Simeon Rice. You can get big numbers, but you don’t have the respect of the defensive ends.”[15] Former teammate Keyshawn Johnson chimed in, “All Simeon Rice does is rush the passer. That’s it. If he doesn’t get to the quarterback, you can forget it. He ain’t making any other plays.”[16]

Rice, hindered by a shoulder injury, appeared in only 8 games for the Bucs in 2006, recording 2 sacks. He was unceremoniously released prior to the 2007 season, and appeared in 8 more NFL games before retiring (6 with Denver and 2 with Indianapolis).

Rice finished his career with 122 sacks (13th highest total since sacks became an official statistic in 1982), 28 forced fumbles, and 475 tackles.

We left Strahan above after his move to left defensive end. In twelve seasons on the left side, Strahan totaled 129.5 sacks (141.5 overall), 20 forced fumbles (24 overall), and 753 tackles (854 overall). He was selected to 7 Pro Bowls, named to 4 1st Team All-Pro teams, 2 2nd Team All-Pro teams, and chosen a member of the All-Decade Team of the 2000s. He retired following a Super Bowl title in the 2007 season.

Oddly, in a 15-year career, the Giants only finished in the top 10 in yards allowed and points allowed in the same season 3 times, including once during his rookie season in which he saw little action. Contrast this with Rice whose defenses achieved this feat his first 5 seasons in Tampa. Although, since the Bucs achieved the feat each of the 4 seasons before Rice arrived, perhaps they would have done so anyway.

Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that Sapp is off-base with his comments. But before we conclude, let’s consider this idea that the left defensive end is an inferior position to right defensive end. The right side tends to be the home of the pass-rush specialist. The left side is different. “[Y]ou’ve got to be smart to play on that left side. The left side sees a few more things, a little more run.”[17]

Sapp seems to indicate that defensive ends who can’t cut it on the right side, move to the left side in a last ditch effort to save their careers. Is this true? Well, in 1994, the NFL released its 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, which featured three defensive ends: Reggie White, Deacon Jones, and Gino Marchetti. All three men were left defensive ends. I dare anyone to tell them they couldn’t hack it on the right side.

Although no discussion on Reggie White, Deacon Jones, or Gino Marchetti is necessary, let’s take a brief look at White’s journey to left defensive end.

White was a consensus All-American defensive lineman at Tennessee and an Outland Trophy finalist. He signed a 5 year-$3.8 million contract with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL. In 1984, he made the USFL All-Rookie team with 11 sacks and 95 tackles. In his second season, he was named 1st Team All-USFL with 12 ½ sacks and 98 tackles. Growing disenchanted with the direction the USFL was headed, White began investigating his NFL options.

In 1984, the NFL held a Supplemental Draft of USFL players in an attempt to avoid a bidding war on its players. The Philadelphia Eagles selected White with the 4th pick overall, after Steve Young, Mike Rozier, and Gary Zimmerman. Playing without White in 1984, the Philadelphia Eagles set a club record with 60 quarterback sacks. Right end Greg Brown was the second-leading sacker in the NFC with 16, trailing only Richard Dent’s 17.5 in that category. Brown, who had made the team in 1981 as a pass-rushing specialist, took over the starting job when Carl Hairston was injured during the 1983 seasons. Hairston was then traded to the Cleveland Browns before the 1984 season. Entering the 1985 season, Philadelphia had Byron Darby and Tom Strauthers slotted at the left defensive end position. The Eagles were actively pursuing the services of White, who, as stated above, was less than optimistic regarding the USFL’s direction. Eventually, the Eagles bought out the final 3 years of White’s contract and inked him to a series of four 1-year contracts. White came to the Eagles 4 games into the 1985 season. In his first game, against the New York Giants on September 29, 1985, White recorded 2.5 sacks and 7 tackles in a 16-10 overtime loss. His 13 sacks and 100 tackles in 13 games earned him NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The rest is history.

Early on, White was being compared to Hall of Famer Howie Long, another player who primarily played left defensive end. According to White, “That’s the guy I want to be compared to. The thing that impresses me about him is that he’s tough on the run and the pass. That’s what makes a great defensive lineman. I wouldn’t want to be compared to Mark Gastineau, for instance, because he’s real tough against the pass only. He’s not as tough as Howie Long on the run.”[18] Long seemed to share White’s sentiments, “Just one year, just once, I’d like to spend a whole season doing nothing but going after the quarterback. I’d like to see how many sacks I’d get. The guys out there, they don’t even know what it’s like to try to stop the run.”[19]

It seems Sapp is alone in his belief that right defensive end is a tougher position than left defensive end. It’s nice of Sapp to stand up for Simeon Rice, a player who was better than most fans probably remember. But he was a pass-rush specialist, which necessitates he play on the right side. Strahan, on the other hand, was a complete defensive player, better suited for the left side. Strahan will join the NFL Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2014. Rice will spend many years on the ballot, but he will never be named a finalist.

[1] The Giants used its first round pick that year in the Supplemental Draft by selecting quarterback Dave Brown.
[2] Meisel, Barry. “Strahan: Giants Run End Around.” New York Daily News 1 Aug. 1996: 93. Print.
[3] "We're not giving anybody any job," Reeves said testily. "They're going to earn their job."
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Farmer, Neal. “TSU’s Strahan trades sacks for team defense.” Houston Chronicle. 1 Sept. 1992: 6. Print.
[7] Plaschke, Bill. “Rating the NFL Draft.” Los Angeles Times. 19 Apr. 1996. Available at:
[8] Smith, Craig. “Draft Preview.” Seattle Times. 17 Apr. 1996: C4. Print.
[9] Reisner, Mel. “Oddball Cardinal’s virtues rewarded: Rice earns top defensive rookie honor.” Arizona Daily Star. 27 Dec. 1996: 1C. Print.
[10] Schwartz, Paul. “Rice impressed by Giants’ visit.” New York Post. 8 Mar. 2001: 55. Print.
[11] Harper, John. “Simeon, Giants Snowballing.” New York Daily News. 6 Mar. 2001: 59. Print.
[12] Stroud, Rick. “With the table set, Rice pulls up a chair.” St. Petersburg Times. 24 Mar. 2001: 1C. Print.
[13] Cummings, Roy. “Sack Masters.” Tampa Tribune. 16 Oct. 2005: Sports 1. Print.
[14] Shelton, Gary. “Earth to Sim. You there?” St. Petersburg Times. 22 Oct. 2006: Gameday 1X. Print.
[15] Harry, Chris. “Rice not pleased with Strahan talk.” Orlando Sentinel. 5 Oct. 2006: D5. Print.
[16] Smith, Katherine. “Add Keyshawn to List of Rice’s Critics.” Tampa Tribune. 19 Oct. 2006: Sports 5. Print.
[17] Giants defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Singelais, Mark. “End doesn’t think that left is right for him.” The Times Union (Albany, NY). 1 Aug. 1996: C1. Print.
[18] Judge, Clark. “Most teams don’t have a prayer against Eagles’ White.” Evening Tribune (San Diego, CA). 12 Dec. 1985: C20. Print.
[19] Zimmerman, Paul. “Show of Appreciation.” 25 July 2000. Available at

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