Big mouth, huge talent

NFL: Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp likes to keep the volume turned up, whether he's terrorizing opposing quarterbacks or talking about it.

January 21, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Warren Sapp may have a sore hamstring, but he's having no problems with his mouth.

Although Sapp's hamstring has limited his practice time this week in preparation for Sunday's NFC championship game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams, it would take a lot more than a sore hamstring to keep Sapp out of this game.

The Bucs' defensive tackle loves the center stage, and this is the second-best center stage in football.

Not that Sapp has much time this week to practice anyway. He had to do the interview with Fox's Terry Bradshaw, the Sports Illustrated photo shoot and talk to the man from Esquire who will profile him in the spring.

On most teams, the offensive players get noticed. But the Bucs are a defensive team, so it's appropriate that Sapp is the center of attention.

It's no surprise Sapp has managed to be the focus of much of the pre-game discussion. Even comments he made months ago still stir up controversy.

Since the Bucs are playing the Rams, reporters got a chance to bring up a comment Sapp made about St. Louis coach Dick Vermeil in the December issue of Sport long before he knew his team would be one step from the Super Bowl.

"Teams keep rotating coaches. I mean, Dick Vermeil? Come on. The game has passed him by. I mean, he's coached since, what, the 1970s? It's just the good-old-boy system. They just keep recycling them. I mean, Dick's a great guy, but I don't think he's a great coach," Sapp said.

Vermeil was too polite to bite back. He wasn't going to give the Bucs bulletin-board material.

When asked about Sapp's comments this week, Vermeil smiled and said, "There are times I feel he's right. I broadcast a number of Warren Sapp's games and told the national audience, `This is the best football player I've seen in a long time at that position. He's got a little zip in him.' "

He added: "I've been around him in locker rooms after the games and that stuff -- he's a character. But he might be right. I hope he's not right Sunday."

Not that Sapp took the words back this week. He said coaches aren't going to be making any tackles in this game.

Sapp isn't the type to play the typical underdog role and talk about how difficult it is to face the Rams' offense.

On his radio show, "Warren's World," he said this week, "If I were a betting man, I'd put a million dollars on the Bucs."

OK, so you want him to talk about how good the Rams' offense is. He will, but only tongue in cheek.

"It's the biggest challenge we've had this year, to stop the greatest offense known to man and the best team since sliced bread," he said.

When he's serious, he'll say the Rams' high-powered offense hasn't faced a defense like the Bucs' this year.

Surprisingly enough, Vermeil seems to agree.

The coach raised a few eyebrows this week when he said it's not likely the Rams can play their usual long-ball game against the Bucs.

"It's not that you go conservative. You just do what they allow you to do, more because of their style of play. You've got to be careful. You don't want to play into their hands," he said.

With Sapp and fellow defensive tackle Brad Culpepper stuffing the run, the Bucs can play their two-deep zone and take away the long pass. If teams do challenge them deep, they risk John Lynch making interceptions from his safety position.

Sapp backed up his words by winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award, edging Tennessee Titans rookie Jevon Kearse.

Sapp admits he didn't play the same way last year when he was 20 pounds heavier and the team went 8-8.

"I was too fat and too slow. I was out of shape, and I wasn't close to being able to make plays. Sometimes late in games, I would line up knowing I couldn't make a play. But this year, I've been able to chase people down for four quarters. I'm giving fans their money's worth," he said.

Sapp gives Tony Dungy credit for motivating him when the Bucs' coach sent him a handwritten postcard in the off-season.

Dungy said he compared Sapp to Pittsburgh Steelers' Hall of Famer Joe Greene -- a former teammate of Dungy's -- in the postcard and challenged him to get in better shape because he had the ability to be the Defensive Player of the Year.

"I talked about Joe Greene and what someone of that caliber means to a defense and a team," Dungy said.

Said Sapp: "I wasn't going to let him [Dungy] down, and in '98, I felt like I did. That was probably the most disappointing thing. It took that type of season for me to see how small of a margin it is between being considered a great player and just being run of the mill. And run of the mill ain't nowhere I want to be."

Sapp has overcome obstacles before. He was a Lombardi Award winner during his junior year at the University of Miami and was considered to have a chance to be the first player picked in the 1995 NFL draft.

But drug rumors caused him to drop to the 12th pick before the Bucs took him.

Sapp pleads guilty to one allegation, but not all of them.

"The one thing that really hurt me was the talk about cocaine," he said.

"It wasn't true. I dabbled with marijuana, like a lot of guys in college do. I admitted it. I told the truth."

The snub still bothers him, and he wants to prove to teams that bypassed him how good a player he is. He says only one of those players picked ahead of him, Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle Tony Boselli, has reached his level.

"It's always in the back of my mind," he said. "I tote it with me. No doubt about it."

Sapp's immediate goal is proving the Bucs can shut down the Rams' offense.

"What matters is we're 60 minutes away from the Greatest Show on Earth," he said.

The Super Bowl.

Now there's a stage just right for Sapp.

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