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Sunday, Sep 21, 2014
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sapp's arrival changed Buccaneers

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TAMPA - When the 1996 Tampa Bay Buccaneers reported to camp under new coach Tony Dungy, Warren Sapp wasn't thinking about creating a Hall of Fame legacy.

He just wanted to be a starting defensive tackle who wasn't pulled on third down.

Waiting for Sapp that day was first-year defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. It proved to be a marriage made in trench heaven.

"Rod's a man of conviction and when you're a man of conviction, you don't waver," Sapp said. "He's just Rod. Every day I went to the job, I got Rod. And every day, Rod was getting Warren. And the same with Dungy. That's what I love about the two men.

"I'd come in with my mood swings, up, down, every which way. They'd look at me and say, 'Now, here's the task at hand.' Rod always had a challenge ready every day."

Marinelli, a Vietnam veteran now coaching the defensive line of the Cowboys, kept pounding that No. 99 rock until he chiseled a two-time All-Decade juggernaut.

"To me, Warren set the standard for the position," Marinelli said. "There will never again be another under tackle in our league who put an entire franchise on his back."

Starting in 1997, when the Bucs finally ended a 14-year stretch of consecutive losing seasons, Tampa Bay's relentless defense ranked in the NFL's Top 10 for each of Sapp's final seven years in Tampa.

Sapp's disruptive skills up front fueled a pass rush that rarely needed help from blitzers as he became the manic face of a highly influential defensive scheme that sent pro personnel directors scurrying on a fruitless quest to find "the next Warren Sapp.''

While Dungy challenged Sapp to be Tampa Bay's version of Joe Greene, it was Marinelli who brought out the best in an immensely talented lineman hoping to rebound from a disappointing rookie year.

"I watched the tape of the '95 season and it was hard for me to believe Warren was coming off the field on third down," Dungy said. "I told Warren, 'This defense is perfect for you. Just do what you do and you should be in 10 Pro Bowls.'

"I saw the work ethic. You can't work people harder than Rod does and Rod could never break him. That's when I knew Warren was going to be great."

Sapp tripled his sack total to nine in 1996. The following season, he earned the first of seven Pro Bowl berths with a swagger that defined the Tampa 2 defense.

"As good as Warren Sapp was, I shudder to think what his numbers would have been if he had a pass-rushing counterpart early in his career," former Green Bay guard Mike Wahle said.

Sapp complemented his rare agility for a 300-pound man with a keen football intellect and a willingness to embrace a leadership role.

"For me, knowing was half the battle," Sapp said. "You couldn't run the same play against me twice - I'd decipher it. I'd see it coming. It's just something I was born with, I guess. I was always thinking."

And dominating.

"If you left him one-on-one, that was something we all expected Warren to win every time," former Bucs tight end Dave Moore said. "And Warren kept guys accountable. You either loved him or hated him, but everyone respected him because nobody worked harder. He respected the game and it was the guys who were cutting corners that he would ride consistently."

Even in practice, Sapp displayed the high energy that defined a 13-year career. He maintained a high standard of commitment and had little patience with players he deemed selfish.

"When Warren got here, everything changed," former Bucs GM Rich McKay said. "He brought an attitude."

After Sapp vouched for Keyshawn Johnson and the Bucs traded two first-round draft picks to the New York Jets for the controversial receiver, Johnson declined to attend Tampa Bay's voluntary workouts, telling Sapp he had business to do in Los Angeles.

Sapp hung up the phone and never looked at Johnson the same way again.

"I played the game the way it's supposed to be played," Sapp said. "Since I was an itty-bitty kid, I was going to play it that way until the day I wasn't going to play anymore. I played the game for the respect of my peers, and I think I have that."

When Bucs safety Dwight Smith entered the league as a third-round draft choice out of Akron in 2001, it didn't take long before he noticed Sapp's attention to detail.

"It was basically learning on the fly and it would have been easy for Warren, with the stature he had, to ignore me," said Smith, who returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the Super Bowl XXXVII victory against the Oakland Raiders. "Instead, he taught me that it's about the whole. You can't win unless the weakest man on your roster can get it done."

Despite joining the Bucs two years earlier than Sapp, safety John Lynch benefitted from Sapp's leadership.

"Yes, he was loud and bombastic, but he was also a really good teammate," Lynch said. "Success didn't come for me right away in the NFL and Warren helped me grow in confidence. I remember playing against Barry Sanders and the Lions at Tampa Stadium in 1997. Sanders had a big game (215 yards) and broke off two long touchdown runs (80, 82) that day. I was the unblocked guy and I got exposed.

"Sapp comes over to the sidelines and says, 'You're not the first guy and you're not the last guy that Barry Sanders is going to do that to, but there's no one else I'd rather have back there in your spot.' What you had to have when you played against a Barry Sanders was confidence, and having Warren say those things to me was a huge help.''

Once Sapp settled in at the three-technique, Dungy's Tampa 2 scheme flourished. With Sapp creating havoc and demanding constant double teams, the Bucs allowed fewer than 300 points in each of Sapp's eight seasons as a starter.

"He had so many different moves," former Bucs middle linebacker Shelton Quarles said. "Sapp was accountable for what he did and he made sure you were accountable for what you did. When a play broke down, he would look at the video monitor and say, 'Quarles, that was your play,' or, 'Brooks, that was your play.' And he would be right. He's a person who knows just about everything about just about everything."

For Sapp, knowledge was power.

He studied tendencies and, according to quarterback nemesis Brett Favre, immersed himself in the bios of the offensive linemen trying to block him each week so he could unnerve them with a choice remark before the snap.

He loved chasing quarterbacks, but loved winning even more. And when another Tampa Bay victory was assured, Sapp embraced his teammates with the realization he didn't do it alone.

"I took a vested interest in my team because this is the ultimate team sport," Sapp said. "No one man standing on the 50-yard line can do anything by himself. I wanted people around me that wanted the same thing I wanted and when we finally got that group of guys, you saw what we did.

"We took off, and it was something special around here."

Sapp signed with Oakland as a free agent after the 2003 season. The Bucs haven't won a playoff game since his departure.

Coincidence?

"That swagger he brought, that was something the team needed then and he brought that we-are-going-to-win attitude," Dungy said.

To developing players, Sapp was a larger-than-life presence who commanded instant respect.

"His manner kept everyone accountable," five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber said. "I learned to love it. When I was younger, I think I was a little intimidated by it. I felt like I had to earn my merits on the field before I could go talk to him as a teammate."

As he joins his fellow immortals in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Sapp looks back - not in anger, but with teeming pride.

"Marshall Faulk says entering the Hall is like a funeral because people say things about you as if you're dead," Sapp said. "Then I realized I am burying No. 99, but not me. You bury the career because you can never change anything about it.

"It makes you so proud to know people appreciate your work."

ikaufman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7833

Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO

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