DT Warren Sapp has plowed into the 2001 season like a category five hurricane
By Reggie Roberts, Buccaneers Director of Communications
Warren Sapp embodies the descriptive adjectives late, legendary NFL Films narrator John Facenda employed while describing pro football in the late '70s.
Facenda, a former television weatherman who possessed one of the most recognizable voices in NFL history, described a pro football game as a three-hour carnival of fury, power, and sound.
That carnival Facenda so eloquently and accurately spoke of 30 years ago has a modernized version that these days rolls into NFL towns like Minneapolis, Chicago, and Green Bay with all the fury and destruction of a category five hurricane.
Fury, power, and sound.
Those three words are Warren Sapp, the, outspoken, unquestioned leader of Tony Dungy's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Rewind. The 2001 NFL season is three months away and Sapp is being his usual opinionated, jovial self as he and the rest of his first-team Buccaneers defensive mates await their next series of snaps during this voluntary June workout. It's only 11:00 a.m., and the temperature is a balmy 95 degrees.
"Gonna be a hot summer," Sapp says to fellow D-lineman Anthony McFarland, Tampa Bay's first round pick of the 1999 Draft.
McFarland responds: "That's how we like it."
Heat, whether generated from the bright, Florida sunshine or from the white-hot glare of the television cameras that record his every move, is nothing new to Sapp.
Heat is what goes with the territory when you've been to the last four Pro Bowls, when you're arguably the best player on one of the NFL's most suffocating defenses and when you're the owner of the Associated Press' 1999 NFL Defensive Player of the Year hardware.
Sapp, who may eventually have the first bust featuring cornrows at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is a student of the game. He is constantly searching for ways to elevate his game and become an even more menacing presence on the field.
"I want to be considered one of the best players who ever played this game when I'm done" Sapp said. "The money, the attention, the fame, the big contract, those are not the things that drive me. Winning and being the best defensive tackle that ever played this game - that's what drives me."
That pronouncement does not bode well for Buccaneer opponents, who say Sapp is already the most dominating interior lineman in all of pro football. Opposing offensive players and coaches agree that their first order of business when preparing to face the Buccaneers defense is to get No. 99 blocked.
"He keeps coming and coming, and coming," said former Washington Redskins guard Tre' Johnson. "Have you seen those specials on TV? Where they show 2,000 mice running through fields together, eating up cows and pigs, just devouring them? That's Tampa Bay's defense. And Warren is the lead mouse."
Added Buccaneers colorful defensive line coach Rod Marinelli: "I've seen Warren gassed, totally gassed, and still dominating," said Marinelli. "Even when he is gassed, he's as good as anybody, and we're just tapping into how good he's going to get."
Sapp's ascension to the lofty peaks of the top defensive players in the NFL began on the opening NFL Sunday of the 1997 regular season. Tampa Bay, coming off a 6-10 season the year before, was hosting the four-time Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers in Houlihan's Stadium. The Bucs, a four-point underdog at home, had other ideas.
Sapp turned in arguably his best performance as a professional as the Buccaneers upended the 49ers 13-6. In addition to his 11 tackles and 2.5 sacks, Sapp knocked Niners QB Steve Young out of the game with a concussion and Jerry Rice out for the most of the season with a knee injury before the second half of the game got underway.
"Disruptive and overwhelming" are the words former Niners guard Ray Brown chose to describe Sapp's performance that day.
Sapp's longtime agent Drew Rosenhaus described the game this way.
"Not only was that game one which served notice on the rest of the NFL that the Buccaneers, after 20 years of futility, were now a force, but it also earned Warren million and millions of dollars," Rosenhaus said. "I arrived in Tampa the next day, and we basically hammered out the parameters for his new deal in a matter of hours. It was that immediate."
Sapp finished the season with 10.5 sacks, helped the Buccaneers to a 10-6 finish and a trip to the NFC Divisional Playoffs before bowing to the eventual NFL champion Green Bay Packers 21-6 at Lambeau Field. Even though the Buccaneers lost, Sapp did not go quietly into the Wisconsin night, sacking Packers QB Brett Favre three times and verbally harassing him all game long.
At the conclusion of the season, Sapp earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
The 1998 season was not kind to Sapp nor the Buccaneers, who stumbled to an 8-8 record and were labeled by several NFL experts as a team of overpaid, underachievers.
Sapp, never one to back down from a challenge, told all who would listen that he had not played up to his full potential in '98 (7.0 sacks), and that things would be drastically different for him and the Buccaneers in 1999.
After pushing himself through an exhaustive offseason workout regimen, which resulted in a 40-pound weight reduction, Sapp, who showed up at Tampa Bay's 1999 training camp weighing a svelte 295 pounds, set out to prove that Tampa's mediocre record from the previous season was a fluke.
After a 3-4 start, including a frightful 20-3 loss to the Detroit Lions before a national television audience, things around the Tampa Bay area got tough. Fans flooded the local talk radio stations demanding that Dungy, his assistants, and starting quarterback Trent Dilfer all be replaced.
Despite the negativity, Dungy never wavered. There were no fire-and-brimstone rantings from the head coach, none of his assistant coaches were fired, and Dilfer, after one game on the bench, remained in place until suffering a season-ending shoulder injury at Seattle in late November.
Wasn't the coach angry? Wasn't he upset? Drastic changes were insinuated around town, and one local columnist even suggested the Buccaneers might not win another game the rest of the way.
"We never were able to establish any consistency, never got into a rhythm on either side of the football during the first seven games," Sapp said. "We struggled, but that's the great thing about Tony (Dungy). He's been in this game as a player and coach for more than 20 years. He's seen it all. He didn't panic, and neither did the team. What took place the rest of the way was incredible. We almost got there."
Dungy, the unflappable head coach, didn't deliver a Knute Rockne speech. Instead, he did what he always does when his teams struggle. He simplified things and implored his players to do the little things better.
"We were sitting at 3-4 and we hadn't played good football," he said. "We just needed to get back to basics. If we started playing like I knew we were capable of playing, there was still a lot of football left.
Nine games to be exact. The Buccaneers won eight of them. Powered by the strength of Sapp and his defensive mates, the Buccaneers secured 25 takeaways in the final nine games and converted them into 81 points. Tampa Bay finished the season with a franchise-best 11-5 mark en route to capturing its first NFC Central Division title in 18 years.
Sapp's performance powered the club's opportunistic defense in the playoffs. The Buccaneers held Washington's second-ranked offense to 157 yards of total offense and no offensive touchdowns in a 14-13 NFC Divisional Playoff victory at Raymond James Stadium to set up the club's first trip to the NFC Championship Game in 20 years. Tampa Bay, a 14-point underdog to the offensive juggernaut St. Louis Rams, nearly shocked the world. The Bucs led the Rams 6-5 with less than five minutes to play before falling 11-6 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams.
"We held the NFL's top offensive team 22 points below their season average, and you know what, it doesn't matter because we didn't win the game," Sapp said. "Nobody remembers who finishes second. That's why we've got to continue to give ourselves chances to get this thing done."
Sapp is doing his part.
He's shown up to the 2001 June workouts 35 pounds lighter, but still armed with the same, aggressive personality that makes those around him perform at a higher level.
Since the team's disappointing 21-3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last New Year's Eve, Buccaneers General Manager Rich McKay, who selected Sapp in the first round of the 1995 Draft, has taken the necessary steps to increase the firepower of Tampa Bay's offense.
First, McKay signed unrestricted free agent quarterback Brad Johnson to a multi-million dollar contract.
The Buccaneers, always looking for defensive upgrades, won the Simeon Rice sweepstakes and now boast an imposing defensive line that features four former number one draft picks - Sapp, McFarland, Rice, and defensive end Marcus Jones. Jones, who had a breakout season in 2000, finished the season with 13 sacks. Rice, who comes to Tampa Bay with 52.5 sacks after five seasons in Arizona, will give the Buccaneers a pure speed-rusher on the right side of the defensive line for the first time in Dungy's tenure as head coach.
And now with all of the pieces seemingly in place, Sapp, Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks and All-Pro strong safety John Lynch are going about the business of figuring out why the defense didn't play as well in 2000 as it did in 1999.
"We've discussed it, and we've watched a lot of tape," Sapp said. "We're going to get back to doing what we do, choking off the running game and putting people in third and long situations. That's when we're at our best."
Warren Sapp and the Buccaneers' defense at their best? Scary thought.