TAMPA — The chase is on.
Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, major talents, the headliners on the Bucs defense, are getting after it at training camp.
McCoy, 26, is coming off a second straight Pro Bowl season. He’s arguably the best 3-technique defensive lineman going and the unquestioned leader of this defense and football team.
And there’s the weakside linebacker. David, 24, should have gone to the Pro Bowl last season, when he had 143 tackles, six sacks and five interceptions.
Two All-Pros, one behind the other, a freshly poured foundation for better days. Lovie Smith is back in Tampa, and so is the Tampa 2 defense. He has monster talents in the middle of the line and at outside linebacker. They’re chasing greatness.
In this case, greatness has names.
Sapp and Brooks.
One behind the other.
The Hall of Fame exacta.
Warren Sapp went in last summer. Derrick Brooks gets enshrined next Saturday.
“Me and Gerald talk about it all the time, how we can be better, maybe great, maybe not like those guys, but great,” David said. “That’s how we approach it. We’re not Brooks and Sapp. We’re McCoy and David.”
The comparisons are unfair, totally, without a doubt.
Only it comes with the territory in a place where Sapp and Brooks dominated.
Sapp, HOF Class of 2013, was at Bucs training camp Saturday. He’ll be there today, too, on the job for NFL Network. He doesn’t think Smith needs to compare McCoy and David with Sapp and Brooks.
“Because you’re going to do it,” Sapp told media. “The city is going to do it. The city is going to do it. It’s already there, so there’s no reason for Lovie to do it. It’s natural for this town to yearn for those days. That’s what it’s going to be.”
Sapp thinks McCoy will flourish under Lovie and the Tampa 2, beyond flourish, really.
“You’re about to see a kid explode,” Sapp said. “Explode. Trust me.”
He added, “I can’t look through Lavonte David’s eyes, I can’t look through Lovie’s eyes. I can look through Gerald’s eyes, and I know what this kid wants. This kid wants to shake the league. And for the first time in his life, he has something to go shake it with. He has a system in place, and a linebacker behind him who can fly like the wind, and some safeties behind him. My God, it’s almost scary.”
OK, we need to take a deep breath.
The Bucs defense only jumped to 17th in the NFL last season, up from dead last. Where’s the John Lynch? The Ronde Barber? The Simeon Rice racing in off the edge? For that matter, McCoy is coming into just his fifth season. David is coming into his third. Then there are Sapp and Brooks.
“Those guys are on a mountain,” David said.
“We can’t be them,” McCoy said. “People need to accept that. In a week or so, Brooks is going in the Hall of Fame. That’s it. Brooks is gone. Sapp is gone. The legacy lives on. We’re here now, and this is what you get.
“I think the fans have to realize that it’s not going to be overnight. They’re expecting us to be the 2002 defense in a defense we just learned. That defense wasn’t like that immediately. It took a lot for them to get there. But they put the work in. They worked like no other. Lovie is bringing that culture back, and we try not to let them down. They gave us the blueprint. Now we’ve just got to stick to it.”
Once upon a time, Tony Dungy told Sapp to chase Hall of Famers, Steelers defensive lineman Joe Greene and Steelers linebacker Jack Ham. In that moment, Sapp and Brooks probably thought Dungy was crazy. In the next moment, they went to work.
Sapp has some advice for McCoy and David:
“Because that’s what I always told Gerald: Gerald, if you get a thousand sacks, they’re going to say Sapp. If you have two, they’re going to say Sapp. It’s just going down. Son, it’s either you can make yourself your own legend or you can drive yourself crazy. Trust me, go for the legend part.”
Sapp and Brooks, a mountain, a long way up.
“We embrace the past,” David said. “It’s a good thing to be compared. But we’re chasing a legacy of our own.”