Warren Sapp Cadillacked off the field in second gear while pointing to the number 99 on his jersey, in case any lingering Washington Redskins fans had failed to notice him. It was a relatively humble exit after a surreal week for the marquee defensive tackle and the rest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For seven days they often appeared as if they had fallen through a looking glass, but as they slipped back through the north tunnel at FedEx Field and into their spartan locker room on Sunday, the mad tea party was over and they were themselves again—the most resourceful team in the NFL.
Sapp (two sacks) and defensive end Simeon Rice (a franchise-record four) had a nose for the football, and quarterback Brad Johnson, who completed 15 of his last 17 passes to rally Tampa Bay from a 13-7 third-quarter deficit, had a nose like a football—scraped and reddish and bulging at the bridge after a hit from Washington Redskins defensive end Bruce Smith. There were two touchdown passes to the third-string tight end, Todd Yoder, and another to the fourth-stringer, Will Heller. If the Bucs had gone any lower on their depth chart, they would have been 40,000 leagues under the NFL. "Truthfully," Johnson said, "I don't know who's playing half the time." The jerry-built secondary combined with the rampaging Rice to limit Washington to one first down on five second-half possessions, while Tampa Bay was scoring touchdowns on three consecutive drives of 80, 91 and 70 yards.
The big news: The Super Bowl champions scored 35 points...and won.
Easy now. The scars are still a little too fresh on a defense that can argue its case for being one of the best of its generation. When All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks returned an interception 44 yards to give the Bucs a 35-13 lead with 6:55 remaining, the score and time were eerily similar to the situation six days before, when the seemingly impregnable Bucs had drifted down the hole into blunderland by squandering a 35-14 lead to the Indianapolis Colts and suffering a historic defeat at home—before a Monday-night national TV audience, no less.
"It was pointed out, yes—86 times," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said after Sunday's game. "I've never been more uncomfortable with a 22-point lead in my life." Of course, this time the Redskins were the opponent, not the Peyton Manning-led Colts, and there would be no d�j� blue. "Last week was not us," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "This defense has put up some great stretch runs for six, seven years, and one five-minute deal at the end of one game is not going to characterize us."
All week the Bucs had vowed to put the Indianapolis defeat behind them, which was where Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison had repeatedly been when the madness started in the Monday-night game. Harrison gamboled through the Tampa Bay secondary, mostly behind fill-in cornerback Tim Wansley, for seven catches, 157 yards and two touchdowns after halftime, as the Colts rebounded from the 21-point deficit with four minutes left to win 38-35 in overtime. Maybe the unfettered Harrison's performance would have been less irksome to the Bucs if their wideout Keyshawn Johnson, miked by ABC during the game, had not been so publicly dismissive of Harrison, or if Keyshawn, who left with a bruised right quadriceps, had finished the game. Maybe not. In any case, the Bucs collapsed like a consumptive soprano in the final act. Undermined by penalties and egregious special teams play, a defense that had allowed only one touchdown on 65 previous possessions—and that on a drive of two yards—gave up five touchdowns in seven series. "You will not see something like that ever again," strong safety John Lynch said last week. "It was humiliating, embarrassing, not even close to being up to our standards, but we will continue to have a swagger."
Indeed, by Wednesday, weird circumstances forced the Bucs to look away from the debacle against Indy and look ahead to the game in Washington. In a morning press conference that verged on the lachrymose, fullback Mike Alstott, one of the NFL's toughest players, announced that the herniated disk in his neck would require season-ending surgery. This was drama. The comedy, of sorts, was provided later in the day by Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington and his unwitting foil. Arrington, the Man Who Would Be Sapp, told reporters in Washington that he found Sapp's penchant for skipping through the opposition's lines during pregame stretching to be disrespectful. Nor was Arrington enamored of Sapp's lining up as a tight end in goal line situations. Turning to the cameras, Arrington said, " Sapp, I'm going to get you." In a rejoinder later that evening, the garrulous 6'2", 303-pound Sapp, who'd had one more touchdown reception—and one more self-aggrandizing, bunny-hopping celebratory dance—than sacks in his last 12 regular-season games before getting the pair against Washington, said he would be easy enough to find.
The NFL put an end to the men-will-be-boys banter last Thursday with letters to both teams, reminding them that players who disrupt warmups would be subject to penalties and perhaps ejection. Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay met with Sapp to reinforce the message, and Sapp behaved, skirting the huddled Redskins 35 minutes before kickoff. (A laughing Sapp and Arrington also embraced after the game.) "When you have Warren Sapp and a player on another team involved in what I refer to as idle chatter, it might be national news and a lot of levity for some people," Gruden said as he stood on the patio amid the weight machines at One Buc Place last Friday. "But I don't consider that a tenth of a percentage point of distraction."
Gruden had more substantive issues to ponder, including Wansley, a second-year player who was thrust into the lineup after Brian Kelly was injured on Tampa Bay's first defensive series against the Colts. Clearly Wansley was not ready for prime time. Apparently he wasn't at his absolute best at other hours, either. According to Tampa-area newspapers, Wansley had been tardy for two meetings in the previous two weeks. (The sly St. Petersburg Times headline: AND WANSLEY GETS THERE LATE—AGAIN.) Gruden declined comment on the reports, but against the Redskins he did shift Barber to the unfamiliar left corner, move Dwight Smith from free safety to right corner and put second-year man Jermaine Phillips in Smith's spot.
"We've lost [two games] because we can't kick an extra point and we can't hold on to a 21-point lead with less than five minutes left," Gruden said. "The problem with this team isn't discipline, it's the closer."