TAMPA - It was 1998 when then-Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy first noticed the difference. On throwing downs such as third-and-long, Bucs opponents were suddenly running the ball more, all but surrendering the down. When they did throw, they were altering their approach.
Instead of utilizing their tight ends and running backs as pass catchers, opponents reduced their throwing options by keeping them in as blockers as pass protectors.
Dungy knew of only one reason for the changes: Warren Sapp.
Sapp will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, this weekend largely because he was one of the few defensive tackles in the history of the game whose mere presence forced opponents to alter their game plans.
"All things considered, he was probably the best there ever was, because he could be dominant not just as a pass rusher but in the run game as well," Dungy said. "He was just so disruptive, and that's really what everyone is looking for at that position."
Sapp officially enters the Hall as a defensive tackle. But in the four-linemen, three-linebacker set the Bucs employed, he played what football insiders call the three technique. It's the handle given to the player who lines up between the guard and offensive tackle, whose job is to charge through the "B gap" into the backfield and disrupt the play, be it a run or pass.
It is one of the most demanding positions on the field, extremely difficult to excel at because it requires a rare blend of size, speed, strength and stamina.
"It's hard, because if they come out and play two tight ends and just run the ball and double team you, you have to be able to stand up to that and then still rush the passer on third-and-6," Dungy said. "And then you have to do that for 50 or 60 plays.
"So, it takes someone truly special to do it, but Warren could. He could dominate you in the run game and, obviously, in the pass game and there just weren't many guys like that."
Mike Golic, the ESPN Radio host who played defensive tackle at Notre Dame before launching a seven-year NFL career with the Oilers, Eagles and Dolphins, remembers only one as good as Sapp.
"When I first saw Warren play, I thought he was the reincarnation of Jerome Brown," Golic said, referring to the two-time Pro Bowler out of Brooksville who was killed in a car accident in 1992 after only five NFL seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"To me, Jerome was the epitome of a three technique with his quickness off the ball and his ability to get offensive linemen off balance. And when I first saw Warren, he was doing all of that as well. For guys of their size - 300 or more pounds - to be that quick of foot and to have that quick a pair of hands and be able to penetrate the line and make plays a yard or two in the backfield is just so rare."
Many consider John Randle, a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee who played with the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks, to be in Sapp's class as a three technique. But Dungy, who coached both, says the 6-foot-1, 287-pound Randle and the 6-2, 302-pound Sapp played the position differently.
"We moved John around a lot, stunted him a lot," said Dungy, who coached Randle while he was defensive coordinator with the Vikings from 1992 to 1995. "He and Warren, they were two totally different bodies.
"It just goes to show you that it's very hard to find someone like Warren who has everything you need to excel at that position, who is big enough, athletic enough, smart enough and tough enough."
You can add willing enough to the list. Though he came by much of his skill and ability naturally, Sapp complemented that with a work ethic his former position coach calls second to none.
"What made Warren different was the way he practiced," said former Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, now reunited with former Bucs coordinator Monte Kiffin in Dallas. "He came to work every day looking to get better. He really took it seriously. I'm not sure I ever saw anyone work as hard in practice as he did."
He was working for the weekend, Sunday in particular, and the opportunity to display all of his skill and ability, all his smarts and savvy - literally, to show off a little bit.
"If it was a Sunday afternoon and the sun was shining - oh yeah, it was going to be a sweet day," Sapp said. "I love this game. I really love it. And that was my sanctuary. A Sunday afternoon? I was going to show you what I'd worked on all week."
He showed it like no other, before or since.
And now he has a key to Canton.