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

November 05, 2001

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 Alstott'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 cornerback 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."

Tampa Bay's most unsightly outing of 2001 was the loss to the
Steelers, in which it surrendered 10 sacks. Afterward, Steelers
strong safety Lee Flowers said the Bucs "talk so much...they
ain't nothing but paper champions." The comment seemed to be
aimed at Sapp, who, coming off a career-best 16 1/2-sack season in
2000, showed up for training camp 35 pounds slimmer and announced
his intention to break the NFL's single-season sack record of 22.
He has one sack.

That statement, coupled with Sapp's warning of impending doom
should the team fail to reach the Super Bowl, rubbed some Bucs
the wrong way. "When you strike a match, it's going to catch
fire," says Keyshawn Johnson, who had five receptions on
Sunday--he left in the second quarter with a right knee
contusion--to boost his NFC-leading total to 46.

"The sack comment shows how badly he needs attention," says
Ahanotu, who had a contentious relationship with Sapp during the
six seasons they spent together. "If the spotlight's not on him,
the world can go to hell in a handbasket. He needs the spotlight
like he needs oxygen." Ahanotu, whose level of play slipped in
2000, says "internal strife" led him to request a trade at
season's end. The Bucs, driven partly by salary-cap concerns,
released him in April. "With Sapp, it's a constant onslaught," he
says. "There are no boundaries."

Known to most NFL fans as the rollicking character who exchanges
head butts and friendly barbs with Packers quarterback Brett
Favre, Sapp is extremely serious about his role as locker-room
patrolman. "He refers to it as his locker room and his team, and
he puts a lot of responsibility on himself," says one Buc. "He
likes to test people, to see how they respond to adversity."

Tampa Bay right tackle Jerry Wunsch says that while he has
clashed with Sapp, "he's a good leader, a guy who points us in
the right direction and is always focused on winning. You always
know where you stand with him." Adds defensive end Simeon Rice,
who joined the Bucs this season after five years with the Arizona
Cardinals, "I don't trip off people who talk. Growing up in
Chicago, we had cats like that on every block. As long as he
backs it up, it's all good."

Maybe not all of it. Ahanotu says Sapp fought with another Bucs
defensive lineman in 1996, and last Dec. 21, three days before
the team's regular-season finale, an argument between Sapp and
Ahanotu during a film session spilled over into the locker room
and escalated into a fistfight. Says Ahanotu, "I had shared
something before with Warren about my relationship with my
father, and he threw it back in my face in front of everyone."

Sapp says the conflict was sparked by his criticism of Ahanotu's
on-field performance. "When we had our run at the end of 2000,
Chidi wasn't the same player, and I wasn't the only one who
thought so," Sapp says. "He didn't come out for our off-season
program, and he wasn't prepared. We roll like a tribe in here,
like the Mongols. Everybody has a post, and if you abandon your
post, we chop your head off."

Ahanotu's retort? "He has, what, one sack? I guess he's next on
the chopping block."

Sapp and Ahanotu--and virtually everyone else in the Bucs' locker
room--agree on one thing: Dungy, whom the team hired in 1996
following a 13-year run of franchise futility and who has guided
Tampa Bay to three playoff appearances in five seasons, is an
excellent coach who should not be under fire. Although rampant
rumors suggest otherwise, Bucs executive vice president Ed Glazer
(son of owner Malcolm) said on Sunday that Dungy's job is not in
danger. Adds McKay, "I don't believe it's even worth addressing.
We know what the franchise was before he came."

Last Saturday night Dungy pushed all the right motivational
buttons, showing his players video clips from victories over the
Packers and the Vikings last season in which the Bucs celebrated
after making big plays. "You guys haven't had a good time playing
football," Dungy told the team. "You need to remember that you
should be having fun out there."

Thirty minutes after Sunday's victory Sapp was jovial as he sat
at his locker fielding reporters' questions while sporadically
spitting tobacco juice onto a towel near his feet. "If I had the
answer to the way we played the first five weeks, I would cure
cancer," he said, laughing heartily. "I'd do something useful
with my life, instead of running around the field chasing
people."

However, the pirate king views his true calling as an ongoing
quest to prod the Bucs to the top. In the weeks to come we'll
find out if his best is good enough--and which heads will roll if
it isn't.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER BUC STOP Sapp, the center of attention off the field, also got plenty of it from the Vikings. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER LIKE OLD TIMES Alstott ran for 129 yards and three touchdowns against the Vikings, his first 100-yard game in nearly two years. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO IN YOUR FACE Sapp vowed that he would break the league sack record this season, but after six games he has only one takedown.

"He'll talk about your mother, your newborn baby, your
grandmother," Ahanotu says of Sapp. "There are no boundaries."

"If you can put up with everything else--and I can--he's a guy
you want on your team," says Keyshawn.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)