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Double Trouble
Michael Silver
November 05, 2001
For better or worse, the fate of the Bucs seems to rest on the words and deeds of All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp
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November 05, 2001

Double Trouble

For better or worse, the fate of the Bucs seems to rest on the words and deeds of All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp

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They wanted wretched excess, and really, who could blame them? As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were driving for a garbage-time touchdown with two minutes left in their 41-14 trashing of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, the crowd at Raymond James Stadium clamored for another score. Seven more points would give the Bucs their highest single-game total in 14 years, tying a franchise record, and on second-and-goal from the Minnesota five, the fans filled the autumn air with an anticipatory roar.

Who could blame them? Warren Sapp, that's who. Sapp, the Buccaneers' All-Pro defensive tackle, incessant loudmouth and unquestioned pirate king, was chatting up teammates behind the Tampa Bay bench when backup quarterback Shaun King went to his knee after taking a snap from center, inspiring a chorus of boos. Sapp turned to the stands and waved his arms, screaming, "Come on—show some class!" Seconds later as King stood over center, prepared to take a knee again, the howls had dwindled to a murmur, and the message was loud and clear: In Warren Sapp's house you'd better mind your manners.

In Tampa, where the Bucs are waging a daily battle for their careers, the spotlight invariably falls on Sapp—illuminating his views, his standards and his unrelenting and imperious leadership style. Despite Sunday's dominant performance, the Buccaneers (3-3) have spent most of 2001 looking tense and skittish as they struggle to live up to amplified expectations that Sapp, their seventh-year standout, has helped inflate. When Sapp said before the season that unless Tampa Bay reached the Super Bowl, the team would be dismantled, it unsettled the locker room and increased speculation that coach Tony Dungy's job was in jeopardy. Now, in what has become an annual rite of fall, the Bucs have stumbled to a mediocre record as midseason approaches, and their margin for error is slimmer than Carnie Wilson.

As disruptive as Sapp often is to opposing quarterbacks, he can create as much havoc in his own locker room, according to several current and former teammates. A quick-witted chatterbox whose riffs are both clever and cutting, Sapp dresses down players on matters ranging from their on-field performance (as he did to several offensive linemen following the unit's miserable showing in a 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 21) to details that are far more personal ("He'll talk about your mother, your newborn baby, your grandmother—he doesn't care," says St. Louis Rams defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, a former teammate). As a result, while Sapp has his share of internal support, the 6'2", 303-pounder has been involved in both verbal and physical skirmishes with those who challenge his authority.

"I deal with him because I have to, not because I want to," says wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, Tampa Bay's other high-profile star. "I don't agree with everything he does, but he doesn't bother me. I like the way he plays, and I'm glad to go to war with him. If you can put up with everything else—and I can—he's a guy you want on your team."

Because Sapp, who turns 29 in December, has been so good for so long, the Bucs felt comfortable giving him a six-year, $36 million contract in March 1998 that, until Johnson came along, made him the franchise's highest-paid player. With the money, however, came increased stature in the locker room, a dicey proposition, given the way Sapp's penchant for drama clashes with Dungy's calm, cerebral coaching style. "Warren is a very bright guy, and he is theatrical," Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay says. "He likes to shock you a little, but usually there's a bit of truth behind what he says. He is a demanding guy who practices and plays hard, and he holds all his teammates to that standard. Sometimes he can be overbearing, but I don't think that's a problem."

When Sapp and the rest of the Bucs play as they did against the Vikings (3-4), they look capable of overcoming any obstacle. Keyed by a dominant defensive effort and fullback Mike Alston's 129-yard, three-touchdown rushing day, Tampa Bay ended all suspense by halftime, at which point it led 28-0 and held a preposterous 20-0 edge in first downs. Still, as great as it felt to triumph in what several players had called a must-win game, the Bucs weren't deluding themselves. "All is right in the world—for one day, at least," said corner-back Ronde Barber. Noting that Tampa Bay's next game is against the 4-2 Packers in Green Bay, strong safety John Lynch added, "It certainly doesn't get any easier."

Under Dungy the Bucs have made a habit of doing things the hard way. If they lose to the Packers, they will have started 3-4 for the fourth consecutive year. In 1999 they rallied to finish 11-5 and reached the NFC Championship Game, suffering a fourth-quarter loss to the Rams. Last season they finished 10-6 before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round.

This year Tampa Bay's proud defense has at times been pushed around. In their first meeting with the Vikings, on Sept. 30, the Bucs allowed Minnesota drives of 80, 74,69 and 96 yards, the last of those in the final minutes of a 20-16 loss. Two weeks later the offensively challenged Tennessee Titans rolled up 365 yards of offense en route to a 31-28 overtime win. All-Pro outside linebacker Derrick Brooks has been playing with a left foot sprain and, says Barber, "is a shell of what he normally is."

Offensively, with their third coordinator (Clyde Christensen) and starting quarterback ( Brad Johnson) in three seasons, the Buccaneers have also been inconsistent, adding to the team's stress. "We're spooked," Keyshawn Johnson said last Thursday night. "We're more uptight than we need to be, and if we don't turn this around fast, things could get real ugly."

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