If Michael Strahan’s NFL season sack record has to fall — and it eventually will — the Hall of Fame defensive end wants Aaron Donald to topple it.
“The sack record is fantastic and it’s great,” Strahan said Thursday by phone. “But I hope Aaron does break it. There have been guys who have gotten close, but I just want it to be a good guy who breaks it. Not some jerk, or some guy who doesn’t care about it or take pride in what he does and just kind of luckily rolls through.
“I want somebody who represents the NFL in the right way. He’s that guy.”
At Rams headquarters Thursday, Donald couldn’t help but feel flattered to hear that.
“Any time you get a Hall of Fame player that even knows my name, you’re going to be pumped up about that,” he said. “So it means a lot coming from a guy like that.”
It’s far from a given that Donald will even match what Strahan did for the New York Giants during the 2001 season, when he accumulated 22½ sacks.
With one game to play, at home Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, Donald has 19½. So he needs three to tie the record, matching the production he had last Sunday against Arizona. But he has shown such games aren’t once-in-a-career outings; he had four sacks against the 49ers when the Rams played them in Week 7.
“It’s something that’s out there,” Rams coach Sean McVay said of the record. “You don’t acknowledge [it] in the team meetings. You talk about guys playing to the best of their ability, and doing different things to hopefully make plays like that. But that’s not something that we’re saying, like, ‘This is the key to the game for us to be able to win as a team.’”
“He’s on the interior, and that’s kind of like fighting your way out of a phone booth because you get surrounded on all sides,” said Strahan, who was a left defensive end, meaning he lined up opposite the right tackle. “When people know you’re the guy who gets sacks and creates all that stuff, not only are you fighting in a phone booth, but they’re constricting the walls of the phone booth by making sure everybody’s really paying attention to you. You kind of have that double trouble.”
Rams running back Todd Gurley called Donald “the best football player I’ve ever been around.”
“It’s an honor to be able to just witness greatness and play alongside him,” Gurley said.
In Arizona, after he set both the franchise sack record and the NFL mark for sacks by a defensive tackle, Donald had to hold back tears on the team bus.
“Because it’s part of history,” he said. “This is stuff you dream about. You always want to have success, but you never think it’ll be as big as it is. So just playing the game and putting the body of work in and watching it pay off meant a lot.”
(It’s noteworthy that the NFL began recognizing sacks as a statistic only in 1982, so players whose careers predated that, do not factor in, among them Rams Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones.)
Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips reiterated Thursday that Donald, the league’s reigning defensive player of the year, probably would likely get MVP consideration if he were to set the sack record. Phillips also said Donald was incentivized by the six-year, $135-million contract he signed before the season, a pact that ended his training-camp holdout.
“Oh, 100%,” Donald said, agreeing with that theory. “I feel like the word ‘thank you’ ain’t enough. You got to show it.”
Strahan said he marvels at the way the compact Donald slips his 6-foot, 284-pound body through the smallest of creases to wreak havoc in the offensive backfield.
“Plus, he’s strong as an ox,” Strahan said. “I mean, look at the guy. He’s built like a bodybuilder. No fat. Six-pack. As a defensive tackle, who in the hell looks like that?”
Donald went without a sack for the first three games this season, finally breaking through with two against Minnesota in Week 4. Strahan got off to a similarly slow start in 2001, when he didn’t get a sack the first two games, but had at least a half-sack in each of the 14 games that followed.
Strahan said the trick was to stop worrying about getting sacks and just focus on the task at hand.
“It kind of snowballed from there,” he said. “For me, it was less about getting sacks and more about being the best defensive player I could be for the team.”
In his first game against the 49ers this season, Donald chased down quarterback C.J. Beathard. But now, Nick Mullens is the starter, and he played his college ball at Southern Mississippi.
Coincidentally, that’s the alma mater of Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, who accounted for Strahan’s final “sack,” in a 2001 finale. That play has been a bit of a punchline for years, because the Green Bay legend didn’t put up a hint of a fight. Favre took the snap, rolled right, and hit the deck, basically curling up at Strahan’s feet.
Strahan has a sense of humor about it, but he’s also a little chafed at the suggestion the sack record is tainted by that flop.
“People make jokes, and people try to make quips about it,” he said. “But it’s always people who have never done it. If you’ve never done something, how can you tell me that something I’ve done isn’t right or isn’t good enough?
“I guarantee you right now, I could show up at your work and get the job done. You couldn’t show up at my work and get the job done.”
Strahan has worn many hats. After his 15-year NFL career, he became an analyst on “Fox NFL Sunday” and co-hosted the daytime talk show “Live! with Kelly and Michael,” and now is a “Good Morning America” co-anchor. He also has his own clothing line.
“Football seems so far away,” he said. “It’s like I’ve lived two or three different lives that are so far removed from sports that it’s almost like I forgot I played sports.”
Whether it falls Sunday or not, that sack record stands as enduring proof.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer