- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2001

TAMPA, Fla. Warren Sapp says people have him all wrong.

The fearsome Tampa Bay defensive tackle doesn't hate quarterbacks. He loves them. Loves sacking them, that is.

"I don't mean the quarterback any ill will," said Sapp, whose 46-1/2 sacks the past four seasons were a mere one-half shy of the NFL's most. "I want him to get up so I can tackle him again. When they take the top quarterback out and put the scrub in, they expect you to get the scrub on the ground. That's no fun.

"[Green Bay All-Pro] Brett Favre's the gold piece. That's who I had to chase down to be a household name. I love him to death. Brett's on his own level, but [Minnesota's] Daunte Culpepper can be like that. I look at Daunte like a white rhino, that '57 Chevy, that '63 Mustang that drops the top. Daunte's 255 pounds and can run like the wind. How are you going to get him on the ground? I liken all quarterbacks to big game."

Starting his seventh season, the 6-foot-2, 294-pound Sapp has wealth (he signed a six-year, $36 million contract in 1998) and fame (he was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1999 and has played in the past four Pro Bowls). But he has never been to the Super Bowl, let alone won it. Tampa Bay made the playoffs three of the past four years after 14 straight losing seasons, but January's first-round playoff exit in Philadelphia so angered Sapp that he publicly ripped some of his defensive mates for crucial mistakes that derailed the Bucs' anticipated climb from 1999 NFC runners-up to an even loftier level in 2000.

Sapp had 16-1/2 sacks last season, just 1-1/2 shy of the NFL record for a defensive tackle, but felt he was out of shape. So he dropped about 30 pounds to get back close to what he weighed in 1999, when the Bucs had their stiffest run defense, ranking fifth in the league at 87.9 yards a game. Last season the Bucs gave up an average 103.0, slipping to ninth in the NFL. Tampa Bay lost just one fourth-quarter lead two years ago; last season, not coincidentally, they lost six games in which they were tied or led in the final period.

"There were a lot of times when we had a team down and we didn't close them out the way we usually do," said 6-6, 278-pound left end Marcus Jones, who blossomed last season with 13 sacks but has switched sides because of the arrival of 6-5, 268-pound Simeon Rice.

A Pro Bowl pick for Arizona in 1999 when he had 16? sacks, Rice held out at the start of last season and slid to 7? sacks. Bucs general manager Rich McKay said just because Rice wasn't the franchise for the lowly Cardinals doesn't mean he was a bust.

"Simeon was still very productive, and now he's in an environment where he's a piece of the puzzle, not the whole puzzle," said McKay, who landed Rice with a rare signing bonus-free deal that's worth just $1 million this year but will cost the Bucs $5 million next season and another $21.5 million from 2003 to 2005 if they want to keep him.

Said Rice, who is athletic enough to have spent his offseason playing in the CBA, the USBL and as part of the Chicago crew putting Michael Jordan's NBA comeback hopes to the test: "This is the dawning of a new day, and I want to make the best of it. This team is right on the brink of doing something fantastic. I have a lot of ability, and I'll be compensated accordingly if I play the way I can. I know in my heart that I can't be stopped."

Opposing offenses figure to have their hands full trying to stop a front four that also includes 6-foot, 300-pound left tackle Anthony McFarland. Jones calls the quartet of top draft choices "the Lords of Havoc." Others have labeled them the Pewter People Eaters.

"Adding a special player like Simeon makes the strength of our team even stronger," Pro Bowl safety John Lynch said. "Marcus had a great year last year, and Booger [McFarland] will only get better in his second year as a starter. Warren's the defensive MVP. You've got to pick your poison. Who are you going to double? Each of those guys feels that if he's singled up, he should get to the quarterback."

Only Buffalo (by 38 yards) has surrendered fewer total yards than Tampa Bay the last four years, and no team was stingier against the pass or allowed fewer points. But as coach Tony Dungy told his players Monday, the past two Super Bowl winners led the league in run defense, and five of the past six participants ranked in the top three.

"We're four individuals working for a common goal to take the quarterback down as many times as we can," Sapp said. "But first things first: We want to make our run defense as stout as we can. If you stop the run, then you can rush the passer."

And then quarterbacks or big game beware.

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