Thursday, April 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Football savvy paves Sapp's path to Hall of Fame

It is the night before Super Bowl XXXVII, and at the Bucs' hotel in San Diego, things finally are winding down. Team meetings are complete. The game plan is good to go. Next on the schedule: some much-needed sleep.

Video director Dave Levy and his crew finally are able to pack up a massive amount of items relocated from One Buc Place into an 18-wheel semitrailer. There are tape players, cameras and thousands of tapes from the team's enormous archive.

A few hours later, just before Levy's head hits the pillow, the phone rings. It's Warren Sapp.

"He says, 'Dave! I gotta see that Gannon tape one more time, man,' " Levy recalled, still annoyed a decade later.

"I said, 'Warren, we just packed up the whole truck. Are you serious?' "

Sapp, as usual, was deadly so.

As night morphed into morning, Levy and his crew franticly searched dozens of boxes packed with tapes, looking for the cutups of Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon. It took nearly an hour to find them, then another hour as Sapp stared at a screen looking for the slightest tendency he might have missed during his hours of film study earlier in the week.

Sapp's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday is the ultimate tribute to the player he was. But the uncompromising preparation Sapp poured into his craft is perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of one of the game's greatest players.

It paid off in the 48-21 Super Bowl victory on Jan. 26, 2003. The defensive tackle sacked Gannon once, and the Bucs intercepted him five times.

Sapp's level of dedication made him a player whose understanding of football far surpassed his teammates' and rivaled his coaches'.

"He not only knew his position, but he knew everyone else's around him," then-Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "He really understood the game. We had a lot of talks about football that went beyond the defensive tackle position."

Sapp often had those conversations with teammates, too. Actually, "conversation" might be the wrong word.

"I'd be in the huddle trying to call the next play, and Sapp would butt in and say, 'Okay, who messed up?' " former Bucs linebacker Shelton Quarles recalled.

Quarles could barely move on to the next snap because Sapp was too busy litigating the last one.

"Next thing you know, he's making corrections. 'You can't play that play from that depth,' or, 'You need to do this or that,' " Quarles said, laughing.

It wasn't a matter of being a know-it-all, though that wouldn't be an inaccurate description of Sapp.

One must know a couple of important qualities about Sapp to put his actions in context. One, he assumed others held themselves to the same high standard he demanded of himself. Second, Sapp was such an unrelenting competitor, he couldn't help himself.

"That was one of the great things about Sapp. He was always an enforcer when it came to accountability," former Bucs defensive end Steve White said.

"After a play, he would turn around and look at the big screen and see who screwed up. You never wanted to be that guy. You'd get to the huddle, and you knew what was about to happen. You were about to be cursed out."

Sapp was vocal during practice, too. Once, he turned around during a goal-line drill and told then-Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips to key on the tight end. Phillips, anticipating a pass to someone else, told Sapp, "I got it." Sapp was right. Phillips was wrong.

"The next time that play came up, I didn't want him to know that I didn't know what I was doing the last time," Phillips said. "So the ball came my way, and I knocked it down. I learned from my mistake even though he didn't know it. I was so pumped and so hyped. And from then on, whenever that play came my way, I was ready."

Herm Edwards, once the Bucs' defensive backs coach, used to watch with admiration as his pupils consistently received instruction from a guy who had never covered a receiver as a pro.

"He'd say, 'See that? You've got to get a reroute, young man,' " Edwards said. "He'd coach them up. He knew the whole defense. Those young guys would say, '(Sapp) knows more about this coverage than I do, and I play this position.' "

If they were smart, those young defensive backs heeded the advice of their elder teammate.

"He knew when the pass was completed, and (when) the coverage was busted, he knew who to call out," Edwards said. "He knew the route combinations, what they were trying to do."

And Sapp did something else: He studied the game. As that night before the Super Bowl shows, intense preparation was a given with Sapp. Maybe his understanding of the game should not be surprising.

"He studied the hell out of the game," Levy said. "Sapp studied every bit of tape you could give him. And I think that's something that is really underappreciated about him."

The Sapp report

For the Times' Warren Sapp Hall of Fame coverage, including stories, photos and video, see tampabay.com/topics/ specials/warren-sapp.page.

   
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