Packer QB Brett Favre and Buccaneer DT Warren Sapp clearly enjoy their heated competition
The greatest individual sports rivalries can be expressed with just two names, and often help define an era.
Larry-Magic. Palmer-Nicklaus. Chamberlain-Russell. Frazier-Ali. McEnroe-Lendl. Chrissie-Martina. Sammy-McGwire.
Not a word of explanation is needed for any pairing on this list.
Now, how about Brett Favre versus Warren Sapp?
Will the National Football League of 2020 or 2030 look back on 'Favre-Sapp' as a defining part of turn-of-the-century football? This much is clear – it is the obligatory story line when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Green Bay Packers, and for good reason.
These are two players that, one would suspect, are eventually bound for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They're respective jobs on the football field make their frequent meetings crucial to the outcome of every Bucs-Packers games. And each is intensely competitive. That's a volatile mix that has created some of the most memorable moments in Buccaneers history.
We probably don't need to tell you that 'Favre-Sapp' was born on January 4, 1998, in the playoffs following the '97 season. Tampa Bay, you certainly recall, was first trying to establish itself as a Super Bowl contender, and eventual '97 champion Green Bay was the team at the top of the mountain.
Favre's Packers won that battle and, as usual, the league MVP was the main reason, completing 15 of 28 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. But the 21-7 final was deceiving and the Bucs remained in the game until late in the fourth quarter, thanks mostly to Sapp, who spent seemingly the entire afternoon in the Packers' backfield. Sapp sacked Favre three times, the two jawed at each other incessantly throughout, and the playoff cameras caught it all.
"We knew going against Tampa that they were going to emerge, if not that game, in the near future as a Super Bowl contender and they've done that," said Favre. "When you look at their defense, you start with Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Derrick Brooks. I personally have had more confrontation with Warren Sapp than the other two. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and we all know how great of a player he is. He's every bit as good as we think he is, as the media thinks he is and as the fans do."
Sapp knows what happened that cold, Wisconsin afternoon.
"It was just one of those days where it was the only game on and the world saw two people just going at it," he said. "We were forever linked that day, and that ain't bad."
It's possible that these two might chafe at constantly being linked, if there wasn't an obvious mutual respect. Favre, as many pundits have said before, has the sort of 'in-your-face' mentality usually associated with a defensive player like Sapp. Sapp has the same will to win that has made Favre a legendary figure.
"I like his mentality," said the tackle of the quarterback. "He's a warrior. He brings a mentality into the game that, 'I'm never too far out of it, I'm never too far behind and any time I've got the ball in my hand I'm dangerous to you and your defense, to your whole ball club. I can beat you.' He's shown it too many times that he's able to get that done."
"I've got the chance to get to know Warren off the field and I really like him," said the quarterback of the tackle. "He's fun to be around. We played a little golf last year and kind of got away from the football side and just joked around, had a good time. I know when it comes to Sunday's and kickoff he's all serious and he approaches it very business-like. That's what you want out of a player like him. That's the way I approach things. There's mutual respect because of that and the way we play the football game. As long as I'm playing and he's playing there's always going to be that fun rivalry."
On the field, mutual respect gives way to diverging goals. Sapp wasn't chasing Favre on that postseason afternoon four years ago because he wanted to make a new friend. He wasn't even chasing Favre simply to record a sack. There was a bigger goal in mind, and that goal is relevant again in 2001 as the Packers have seemingly returned to top form.
"That was my challenge when Tony first walked in the door – catch Green Bay," said Sapp. "To catch Green Bay, I had to take their quarterback down. They've always been the great team that came out and released five wides. He got everybody into their routes and it's just one-on-one up front, and if you can rush, you can rush. Favre had to hold the ball and wait for his receivers to the last moment, and that's conducive to getting some sacks if you can get it done."
Sapp, of course, claims to enjoy the pursuit of any quarterback, and his head coach, Tony Dungy, knows that there is more to the challenge confronting Sapp than just the passer. Still, there's every reason to expect the spotlight to be on those two again come Sunday.
"I don't know that he's exactly just going against Brett Favre," said Dungy. "I think he's going against their offense, and the way they play he gets a lot of opportunities to rush one on one, which he doesn't get against a lot of other people. You've got two competitive guys, and they've played well in games against each other and I think that is fun to watch."
And, apparently, fun to be a part of. While the two have had many more encounters since 1997 – Sapp, in fact, has more sacks of Favre, eight, than any other quarterback – it is part of the enduring image of the rivalry that, back in that first playoff game, both players had smiles on their faces when they stood helmet to helmet after a big play.
"He's just a great player," said Favre. "Every team in the league would like to have him. On top of that he likes to jaw a little bit and I know that TV cameras love to pick it up and love to see it. I don't particularly like it because usually that means that I'm on the ground when he's talking to me."
Favre, by the way, is the NFL's third-rated quarterback, with a stratospheric passer rating of 107.7. Only Atlanta's Chris Chandler (126.5) and St. Louis' Kurt Warner (110.8) rank higher.
The three-time league MVP is also tied for the NFL lead in touchdown passes (eight), ranks fourth with 804 passing yards and is completing just under 70% of his passes. Should the Favre household begin clearing space for another MVP trophy?
It's early, but Favre is healthy and clearly having fun again. Having just faced a quarterback at the top of his game in Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper, the Bucs' defense faces another tough chore in Favre this weekend. The pass rush from the defensive line was strong against the Vikings, but Culpepper consistently avoided sacks with impressive, last-minute check downs.
"Brett has that same ability," said safety John Lynch. "Fortunately, he's not 270 pounds like Daunte. I think if our guys up front get the pressure they like got on Daunte we'll get some better results out of it. But Brett does have that 'escapability,' he's had it his entire career, making good things happen when it looks bad."
Sapp believes Favre is seeing the benefits of a rejuvenated core of offensive skill players in Green Bay.
"They've got everything going again," said Sapp, appreciatively. "They're dumping the ball over the middle on that 'iso' pass to Bubba (Franks) like they did with (Mark) Chmura. Antonio Freeman woke up. (Bill) Schroeder's playing out of his mind and he can run like the wind. So we've got our work cut out for us. It's going to be fun."
Added Dungy: "And they're running the ball well, so everything's not on his shoulders. He still drives the train, but he's got other guys around him making big plays. I think that's helped him as well as being healthy."
According to Lynch, however, the same old Brett Favre means the same opportunities for big plays in the other direction.
"The thing you've got to realize with Brett – and it's still the case – is that you're going to have your opportunities," said Lynch, who had a key interception in last December's visit to Lambeau Field. "That's just because his attitude is, he doesn't care. He feels like, in the long run, he'll make more plays than he gives you plays. But he's going to give you an opportunity to catch some balls. What you have to do against him is, when he gives you that opportunity, you have to make good upon it and make him pay."