DT Warren Sapp is just the second player in team history to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year
The Associated Press announced today that Buccaneers DT Warren Sapp was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. This highly prestigious honor was bestowed on a Tampa Bay player just one other time in franchise history, when Hall of Fame DE Lee Roy Selmon won it in 1979.
That Sapp duplicated Selmon's feat exactly 20 years later has not been lost on anyone. The most dominating defensive lineman to put on a Buccaneer uniform since Selmon, Sapp chased his predecessor's team sack record of 13 this season, falling just one-half sack shy at 12.5. And just as Selmon was one of the league's most feared and respected players during his stint in the NFL, Sapp has also made himself a household name in the league's 31 cities.
Selmon was also the linchpin in the league's number-one ranked defense in 1979, the only unit in team history that can be compared to the current group. From that year until 1997, the Buccaneers never finished higher than 11th defensively in a full season, but Tampa Bay's late-90's defense under Head Coach Tony Dungy and Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin has ranked among the league's top three for three consecutive seasons. Sapp has been at the center of the resurgence.
"From the time Tony walked in the door," said Sapp, "he came to me and said 'I'm going to build this defense around you. You've got to be a player that goes 60 minutes for me.' I took that to heart, and I wanted to let my play exemplify that and become an intricate part of the team. I think I did that for the most part, except for one year when I had a lapse. I got myself back into shape and put it on the field."
Sapp's reference to a 1998 season that left him disappointed in himself is at the center of his ascension to the top of the league in 1999. After leading the team with 10.5 sacks in 1997, a steady rise from three as a rookie in 1995 and nine in 1996, Sapp dipped back to seven sacks in '98 and generally felt like less of an impact player. His exemplary 1997 season was followed by a famous three-sack effort against Green Bay's Brett Favre in the playoffs, and it seemed to have him poised for a dominant '98. Instead, Sapp spent most of that season toiling above his normal playing weight, lost a little bit of his renowned quickness and watched his team fall from a postseason berth to 8-8.
As has now been told and re-told, Sapp rededicated himself during the 1999 off-season after some very unsatisfying afternoons with the 1998 game tapes. He reported to the team's '99 training camp in top physical condition and announced himself ready to dominate the league. Then he did it.
"I had to," said Sapp. "I realized that the numbers that I had that year, and even more than that my team being 8-8 and missing the playoffs, having a championship-caliber team and not being able to go out and prove it in the playoffs really kind of shined the light on all of us. We had to bring ourselves back to the basic fundamentals of the game. Even more than that, I had to look at myself. When I'm on my game, this team's hard to beat. That's what I wanted to get back to. I worked hard at it and I tried to make myself more consistent in the 16 games that I was going to play this year, and I think I did that for the most part."
Sapp, who combined his 12.5 sacks this year with 54 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two passes defensed, clearly had team goals on his mind, and so it's no surprise that he considers his honor somewhat of a team award. "I'm just a representative of this unit that I play for," he said. "That's the way I've always looked at and that's the way I always will view it. I'm just an integral part of this unit. We pride ourselves on being one of the best in the league. If my play this year warranted this award, I'll take it and I'll share it with the boys inside."
There is little doubt that the overall success of the Buccaneers' defense contributed to Sapp's heightened profile. The AP also bestowed the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award on RB Marshall Faulk of St. Louis' number-one ranked offense, gave the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award to RB Edgerrin James of the 13-3 Indianapolis Colts and handed the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award to DE Jevon Kearse of the 13-3 Tennessee Titans. Tampa Bay's defense was considered the league's most difficult unit to face by many, and it set team records for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (235), fewest first downs allowed (228) and fewest rushing yards allowed (1,401). It also rushed the passer well, coming within one sack of the team record of 44, upped its interception total from 12 last year to 21, and allowed just seven offensive touchdowns in eight home games.
Sapp was equally steady. Though he played the second half of the team's third game with a broken hand and missed the next week due to that injury, Sapp recorded at least one sack in nine of the other 14 games in which he played. He constantly drew double-teams from opposing offenses, helping three of his defensive linemates rack up at least six sacks of their own.
"My ball club's playing well," said Sapp. "That's the thing that I wanted to do, come out each week and help my ball club win games. We had 11 wins, the most in franchise history, and put ourselves in the position we're in today, two games away from the greatest show on earth. That was my biggest goal, to get my team in position to win a championship. Everything else will take care of itself, and I guess this is a little something that falls in line with it."
Perhaps so, but it is not something that falls into place often. It took the Buccaneer franchise just four years to have its first player win one of the league's major end-of-the-season individual awards, but it took another two decades for the feat to be matched. And it took a player who dominated the game the way the great Lee Roy Selmon did in 1979. Warren Sapp: 1999 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.