Warren Sapp says the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a playoff team in 2011. His number-one reason for making this prediction isn't Josh Freeman or Gerald McCoy or Raheem Morris…though those are definitely high on the list.
Sapp expects big things from the 2011 Buccaneers because he sees something in them that he remembers from his own most rewarding years in Tampa: Belief. This is a team, he says, that truly believes in the program, with players that truly believe in each other.
And know this: Sapp also believes in the Buccaneers' direction under General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris.
"[Morris] understands what he wants to do with this young team and he's applying it on a day-in, day-out basis," said Sapp, who was selected to seven Pro Bowls during his nine-year tenure with the team (1995-03). "The one thing I know about football: If you buy in, it will work. That's what [New England Head Coach] Bill Belichick does. They do it all the time. They do it to everybody. I like the philosophy of it. I don't need my critics to believe me, I just need my ballclub to. And I know [Morris] has the pulse of these kids. They're playing. You can just watch them in walk-through. These kids are so ready. They don't know anything but what the coach says. 'He told us 10 wins and we go get 10 wins.'"
The Buccaneers drafted Sapp out of the University of Miami with the 12th overall pick in 1995, the same year the team was purchased by Malcolm Glazer. The next year, Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin arrived and by 1997 the franchise had begun what would be its most sustained run of success. Sapp and the Bucs' defense led the team to the NFC Championship Game in 1999, where they came up just five points shy of the Super Bowl, and then all the way to the top in 2002. Sapp won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1999, set a team record with 16.5 sacks in 2000 and finished his Buc tenure with 77.0 sacks, second in franchise history to Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon's 78.5. He finished his career with four years in Oakland and netted 96.5 sacks overall in 13 seasons.
Now, Sapp is trading on another one of his most impressive talents, the gift of gab, as he analyzes the league in entertaining fashion for the NFL Network. On Wednesday, he visited One Buccaneer Place to interview Morris for the network (set your DVRs for the Network's Total Access Show next Tuesday night), and he took the time to share his thoughts about his former team.
He clearly likes what he sees. And to dismiss Sapp as a homer would be to ignore several of his greatest assets as a debater: He's blunt, and he's always well-armed with information. Sapp has studied these Buccaneers closely, and on Wednesday he got in some more work with a long film session, primarily looking at the team's young defensive linemen.
One thing Sapp couldn't help noticing about that group of players, obviously, is that it's very young and it's the product of some very significant draft-pick assets in recent years. Sapp was initially a bit skeptical about how heavily the franchise is currently favoring the draft over outside free agency, but he changed his mind when he started comparing the 2011 Bucs to his own teams.
"They said, 'Young Bucs – we're going to go with our guys,'" said Sapp of the game plan Dominik laid out for him. "I was like, 'I don't know about that.'
"Then I went, 'Okay. I remember me, Brooks, Lynch, Ronde, Dwight Smith – all of the guys that we drafted pulling together.' I was thinking, 'That is the way we did it.' We went and snatched Simeon [Rice] out of the free agent market and got him in here, but we didn't add a bunch of different pieces. It was home-grown Bucs that we won with. I like their philosophy. It's worked before. Ten wins isn't a bad way to start. You talk about 74 guys in this place being under 25, it makes me feel ancient around here."
Sapp sees the youth and the promise all over the depth chart, not just on defense. If he had a time machine, he would take Josh Freeman back to 1999 with him – "The one thing that this team has that I never had was a franchise quarterback" – but Freeman is going to stay here and bond with the likes of Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, LeGarrette Blount and Kellen Winslow.
"What they did is they solidified their front, to where their quarterback now is protected," he said. "You've got Arrelious outside, you've got Mike Williams, you've got Blount in the backfield, you've got a good little combination with K2 right there. They've got a great combination of young guys that say, 'We build together. We build together. We grow together. We grow old together.'"
The one position on the great Bucs' defense of the late '90s and early '00s that occasionally was addressed with free agents – albeit usually of the middling range – was strongside linebacker. Sapp recalled Rufus Porter, who played the spot in 1997 during his only season with the team, struggling to adapt to the team's practice routine. He thinks Dominik remembers it, too.
"I didn't think about it until Raheem told me," said Sapp. "He said, 'How many outsiders did you have in your defense?' I was like, 'Whoa, whoa, relax!' We were talking and I [realized] it was all homegrown. It was us. They came and did what we did. I read Mark Dominik's piece where he said, 'I didn't want a guy coming in here and we hand him his stuff and he says, 'Well, in Indianapolis they gave me this, or in Baltimore they…' So I understand what they're saying because they have a certain way they're doing it. They want to draft their guys, they want to build them together, they want them to grow together. I like that."
Sapp has done his homework quite thoroughly for the Network, and he had opinions on many of the team's young cornerstone players, most of them quite positive. He has predicted a playoff run for the Buccaneers in 2011, but he isn't going in with blinders on. Sapp knows that certain things have to fall right for the Buccaneers in their playoff hunt; he just happens to be optimistic that they will. For instance, he doesn't think the Buccaneers will be consistent winners unless they get solid play from their young defensive tackles and the starting middle linebacker.
Here are Sapp's thoughts on several other Buccaneer positions and individuals:
On the progress of second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy:
"The best thing Gerald did was, coming into this year he talked about being his own player. Because that's the only way he's ever going to make steps and take off like he needs to, is be himself and be what he needs to be. He couldn't be Tommie [Harris] at Oklahoma. I can't even be Warren Sapp any more. I'm not 27; that's crazy. I told him, 'Don't even worry about that. Just go ahead and do whatever you can get done and just take steps.' After his rookie year, I'm sure he understands what it is now to go in preparing week-in and week-out."
On the promise of rookie first-round defensive end Adrian Clayborn and the rest of the young D-Line:
"The kid, Clayborn…Donald Penn came up to me and said, 'Man, I've never worked this hard. I didn't have anybody [to push me].' I said, 'I know you didn't have anybody over there. Lighten up, big boy, you got yourself someone now. So go at it.' He said, 'I've got to go at it. We're going at it every day.' I like that the kid's coming in and doing that. I looked at tape on some of the other ones – they've got a combination right now, some loose bodies and big hogs. They love working. You can see it. It's genuine. Whenever you have a unit like that, it's going to be something to be reckoned with."
On quarterback Josh Freeman:
"They have a franchise quarterback, and I see the kid as an MVP candidate this year because he's fire-retardant. The one thing I've done in this league is chase quarterbacks and live quarterbacks, and that's the prize. And this young man, there's something about him. Watching this kid grow and watching the young men around him grow with him – he commands them. It's almost like that Vick thing where people want to go play with him. This kid has that quality about him, too."
On rookie Mason Foster possibly winning what he considers the critical starting MLB job:
"He doesn't have to do anything but his job. That's the whole beauty of defense when you're talking about 11 guys. You can have Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Brent Jones, whatever you want on offense. Just give me 11 guys on defense that say, 'Not today.' If where we're supposed to be and doing what we need to do, the greatest offense in the world will go away. I've done it. I choked out 'The Greatest Show on Turf.' I've done it. I understand what that is.
On Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount's path to the league and what they can accomplish:
"I was talking to Mike today and I hit him with my story. I said, 'They doubted me too when I first got in this league. They wrote a whole bunch of whatever, that I'll be out of the league…' I said, 'Just get them on the 120 by 53-and-a-quarter and show them. That's what you do. You put it on tape, because women lie, men lie but that tape ain't going to never lie. Are you getting it done on Sunday?' And Blount, I told him the same thing. I said, 'Everything that's behind you is behind you. If you don't see that right now, you're a blind man. You have a perfect opportunity to run for as long as you want to run and do whatever you want to do in this game. Just apply yourself.' The kid loves the game, he has a hunger for it.
On 36-year-old cornerback Ronde Barber maintaining a key role on a young team:
"He's still here. He's not going anywhere. But I believe in this: You need some old, ornery men on your ballclub. Some old, ornery, stuck-in-their-ways, grumpy old men that just [say], 'This is what you do, and if you do it we'll keep you around.' You need that guy, and Ronde's that guy. He's always been the rock."