The reluctant Giant
By David Elfin
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Antonio Pierce hasn't forgotten. More than four years after being bypassed in the 2001 NFL Draft, Pierce still keeps a list of the 30 linebackers taken and where they are now. He's proud that more than half of those players are no longer in the league while he has a six-year, $26 million contract as a starter for the New York Giants.
Pierce also hasn't forgotten that he should still be in Washington this week, preparing to face a New York team he gave fits in 2004, instead of being on the other side.
After two years as a special teams player, Pierce emerged as Washington's top tackler and the heart of a defense that zoomed from 25th in 2003 to third in 2004. It was a perfect time to be approaching unrestricted free agency -- except that the middle linebacker didn't want to test the market.
"I let the Redskins know in the earlier negotiations [last fall] that I wanted to be there and get things done," Pierce said. "What they initially offered me was an embarrassment. The money I got here in New York was way more than I thought I would get, but [it] never should have gone that far. I just wanted to be treated well and valued. [Free agents] walk in there and almost rob [the Redskins], so you'd think they would reward a guy who has been there and always did his job. You wouldn't go as low as you could and see if you could reach a middle ground."
The Redskins refused to top the six-year, $22.5 million contract they had given free agent linebacker Marcus Washington the previous March and when they declined to match the Giants' offer, Pierce switched from burgundy to blue.
Though the Redskins had to weed through a pack of candidates to succeed Pierce before settling on 2004 weakside backer Lemar Marshall and Pierce stepped right into the Giants' lineup, he misses his old team more than its defense misses him.
"That defense will work regardless of who you put in there," Pierce said of assistant head coach/defense Gregg Williams' unit. "Those guys are coached and taught so well, and they're so disciplined."
It has been easy for Pierce to get nostalgic lately because, in preparation for facing Dallas and Denver, he spent hours watching friend and ex-teammate Marshall lining up in his old spot in the heart of the Washington defense.
"The defense would probably be even better if I were still there, but Lemar is doing well," Pierce said. "That defense is built for the middle linebacker to make a lot of plays."
Marshall isn't the same vocal leader as his predecessor. His eyes don't burn with the fire that Pierce used to chase down enemy ballcarriers or to put rambunctious rookie Sean Taylor in his place.
But Marshall is doing fine in Pierce's stead, vying with Washington for the team lead in tackles and having recorded one of the Redskins' two interceptions and two of their 10 sacks. And though Pierce has been solid for the Giants with a team-high 49 tackles and an interception, New York's defense is the NFL's second-worst while Washington ranks fourth.
"Antonio's very smart," said Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "He studies the game quite a bit. He has a very good feel for getting people lined up. You see him walking up and tapping [standout defensive end Michael] Strahan and moving guys around."
But a piece or Pierce's heart remains in Washington. Unlike such ex-Redskins as Champ Bailey and Laveranues Coles, who were glad to put Redskin Park in their rearview mirrors, Pierce has kept his house in Virginia.
"Gregg is the best defensive coordinator I have played for," Pierce said. "We have great respect for one another. I talk to a lot of those guys down there. I hang out with them in the offseason. Those are my boys. I wish that defense the best."