DT Warren Sapp and the Bucs are hunkered down for a critical fourth quarter
Tony Dungy, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has long compared the NFL football season to the pattern of a single game.
The math is certainly right. The four quarters of an NFL game match up with its four regular-season months or, more exactly, with four stretches of four games each. After eight games, you evaluate where you stand and head into the second half of the season. After 12 games, get ready, because you're in the final quarter, when everything is do-or-die.
And the Bucs under Dungy have done much more than they've died. Despite an atypical stretch of late-game losses in October of this year, the Bucs are 32-3 under Dungy in games in which they took a lead into the final period.
However, since the Bucs are 8-5 and far from the lead in the NFC playoff race, the 2000 season isn't much like one of those games with a fourth-quarter lead. Luckily for Tampa Bay, it has also been one of the league's best teams in the final weeks of the season. Since 1998, the Bucs are 8-2 in December and January regular-season games, second-best in the NFL to the New York Jets.
DT Warren Sapp, who will lead his team into Miami this Sunday for a crucial matchup with the AFC East-leading Dolphins, is confident the Bucs can continue that string of success.
"I think it's ugly football sometimes, crazy football," said Sapp. "We do some crazy things, no doubt about it, but we've always said that we're a fourth-quarter ballclub. We'll put you in there and we'll go for 60 minutes and see if you can hang with us. Who's going to make those four or five plays that decide the ballgame? I think that's the way Tony's always geared us up – good play, bad play, put it behind you. It's the next play. Whenever you play like that, you have to play four quarters, 60 minutes of football. I think that's our style and it's a very physical style.
"I think we've always been a team that finished strong, because of where we play and where we practice. Nothing ever changes around here. We do the same thing over and over again. When you do that, you get better at what you're doing. We've always had a strong fourth quarter and we don't want to change anything about that.
"That's something that we benefit from, doing the same thing over and over again. When you do something over and over again, you become really good at it. You know where to block, where you're supposed to fit and where you're supposed to tackle, all the different things that go into a ballgame. That's one thing that Tony's always harped on us about, the fundamentals of the game. It's a grind. You get into Week 14, and it's a grind. You're mind can wander a little bit, in practice and in a ballgame. You just have to focus on the task at hand, and that's what we try to do play in and play out. It's been effective for us."
Sapp held his usual lunchtime media gathering in the locker room on Thursday afternoon, and covered a variety of topics. Here are his thoughts on some other issues facing the Buccaneers.
Is there a rivalry between the defenses of the Bucs and Dolphins?
"I don't know," said Sapp. "I know we don't care for each other much. I know that. I think, overall, we haven't matched up against them much. They think we play great defense, we think we play great defense. For a long time, Dan Marino was Miami football and their defense never got the credit. They got dogged all the time, so now, they want that respect but everybody still talks about the offense. I think they take that as an insult."
How have the Dolphins caught the NFL by surprise with their 10-3 record?
"I think it's like that because Dan Marino's not there," said Sapp. "For 17 years, #13 was under center. When you have a legend in his own right behind center, that's what's going to get the attention. A lot of times, they didn't have everything to complement that – no defense, no running game. But now they have a complete package. When you look at that, you can't say, 'Who are these guys?' All you have to do is turn the film on. They're a more-than-capable ballclub."
Do the Bucs and Dolphins rely on the defense and special teams to create points and scoring opportunities?
"I think we rely on our whole ballclub to come out and play effectively and well," he said. "Just because you have field position doesn't mean you score points. We get to the 35-in, it's Martin-time. We've got it! That's three points guaranteed, so now let's go for something. We've got a very reliable kicker. I think we mirror each other on these two teams. Two great kickers, two great defenses and an offense where people say, 'What do they do?' We run the ball effectively, both ballclubs do, and it's going to be a good game."
Will you enjoy playing in Miami, the place of your collegiate glory?
"it's going to be a whole lot of fun," said Sapp. "Outside of going back to Miami, we're in the middle of a championship run. That makes it all the more special, and then when you're playing the hottest ballclub in the NFL right now, that makes it even more special. Then the in-state rivalry – you can pile a lot of things on this, but I'm just going to go into it like I went into the last two ballclubs. This is a chance for me and my ballclub to put ourselves in a better position in the playoff run."
Can you draw anything useful from the preseason game at Miami in August?
"Any time you go out and play, it's on film and you have to evaluate that performance," he said. "We've looked at it all week long. We even went back to the practice that we had in Orlando. When you're in training camp, that's what you work on. You work on the basics, the fundamentals of your game. They're not going to change much from that. They might have a couple different formations or something, but the base runs and the base packages are going to be the same thing. You have to see how you reacted to those base runs and base packages. We felt like we did a good job in the preseason game, we just didn't tackle well. Outside of that, they weren't out-manning us or anything. We just didn't tackle. The mistakes we made were spinning out of a gap, or something silly that happens early trying to get back into football form. We're a better defense than we were when we first faced these guys, and I think they're a better team than when we first faced them, also. So, it's going to be a classic battle."