TAMPA — Say this about former Bucs star defensive tackle Warren Sapp: He never holds back.
Sapp was like that in his career chasing quarterbacks, racking up seven Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl title with Tampa Bay in 2002, and he's the same colorful and charismatic guy today, telling it like it is as an NFL Network analyst.
So after Sapp visited One Buc Place Tuesday afternoon, watching the team's walk-through at Raymond James Stadium before hanging out with the defensive linemen in their meeting room, he had plenty of conviction in his prediction for the Bucs this season.
"I really do believe they're a playoff team," Sapp said. "I really do."
Sapp sounded off on a number of topics in a 30-minute conversation with the local media, from how he's buying in to the Bucs' build-from-the-draft philosophy, to quarterback Josh Freeman's special qualities, to his own Hall-of Fame candidacy.
On why he believes the Bucs are a playoff team:
"The quarterback and the defense. It starts up front, with the two hogs in the middle and these young kids. If (DT Gerald McCoy) is calm and they're active, that eliminates a lot that can be done."
On the key for the Bucs:
"I look at the inside, (DT Brian) Price and McCoy have to show up. They have to be stage-setters. They have to be so strong through the middle because it's going to be them and a rookie linebacker (LB Mason Foster). That's the one thing that I've always known about this defense, the middle backer has to be cerebral, but he has to be the calming force of it. ... That's going to be the biggest thing, the middle of this defense — those two tackles and the linebackers have to be able to lock this thing down. Those two kids in the middle (have to get) themselves back healthy and ready to go and (Foster needs to be) a calming force, understanding what they're asking him to do on defense, being able to identify the shifts, the movement, call that thing and get them lined up."
On the Bucs defensive line:
"They got a combination right now, some loose bodies, some big hogs and, you know, (pass rush coach) Keith (Millard) loves it all. ... That's what pulled this carriage all these years. ... They love working with each other, you can see it, it's genuine. Whenever you got a unit like that, it's something to reckon with."
On how GM Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris are building through the draft:
"I was looking at it from afar and I was like, 'They're $46-59 (million) under the cap and that's the best receiving core in the history of this game that's been on the street, and it's like, no, we're going to go with our guys.' And I'm like, 'I don't know about that.' Then I went, okay, I remember (Derrick) Brooks, (John) Lynch, Ronde (Barber), Dwight Smith, all the guys we drafted, growing together, and I'm thinking, 'That is the way we did it. ... It was homegrown Bucs that we won with and I like their philosophy. ... It's worked before and 10 wins ain't a bad way to start."
On if more people around country are believing in Morris:
"You're going to have your critics and your skeptics because he went from 3-13 to the largest turnaround in franchise history. And then being the youngest coach and then having the youngest team. He's got this new word, 'Youngry.' I kind of like it. He's gone Jesse Jackson on me, inventing words. I said, 'Boy, we might have given you a little bit too much confidence with them bad Bucs. ... I like the philosophy of, 'I don't want any of my critics to believe in me, I just need my ballclub to.' I know he has the pulse of these kids. They don't know nothing but, 'Let's do what coach says, he told us 10 wins, we got 10 wins. It's called a Jedi mind trick. If I can fool you, you'll believe it."
On the Bucs offense, and QB Josh Freeman:
"It's beautiful, I like scoring points. I wish I would have had a couple more points, I might have had a few more championships. ... They have a franchise quarterback (Freeman) and I see this kid as an MVP candidate this year. He's fire retardent. The one thing I've done in this league is chase quarterbacks, and lived quarterbacks, that's the prize. And this young man, there's something about him. ... Watching this kid grow and watching the young men around him grow with him. He commands them like, it's almost like that (Michael) Vick thing, where people want to go play with him. This kid has that kind of quality about him too."
On veteran CB Ronde Barber:
"You need some old, ornery men on your ballclub, some old, ornery stuck-in-their-way, grumpy old men that (say), 'This is what we do.' ... You need that guy, and Ronde is that guy. He's always been the rock, he's always been the nut, that crazy uncle in the lockerroom throwing your helmet at you and everything. He's always fun to be around. He's great."
On impact of the reducing the number of padded practices:
"I'm really worried about the fundamentals of tackling, because the last couple years, not a lot of guys had technique. They were just going at people's heads, launching at people's heads, looking for a highlight, trying to be on 'Hits of the Week.' If you take away their ability to go at somebody's head, now you got to go back to fundamentals and when was the last time somebody taught tackling? I was in the NFL for 13 years and didn't tackle a soul in practice, not one time. Mike Alstott came through, and it's like, 'Look out, keep on running Mike!' That's just what you did. You didn't put yourself in harms way. I'm looking for the fundamentals of the game to come back. ... There's going to be more (yards after catch) and yards after first contact than we've ever seen. I just don't see the fundamentals of the game on the defensive side getting better in this time."
On CB Aqib Talib and his legal troubles:
"I reserve judgment on that. I know this kid is a good man. Because if he wasn't, I know this organization wouldn't have him. I don't think Raheem or Mark Dominik would put themselves in the position to be tarnished or trashed, because they're building something special. And I think this kid is one of those kids who is going to help them build something special. It's one of those situations where, let it get out and see what it is. I'm going to put my chips with Talib on this one
On what defensive line coach Keith Millard brings:
"Hell on fire, going 100 miles an hour. He coaches like he lives, hard and fast. You're talking about the original three-technique. ... His love for rushing, the game, the kids, and the knowledge. ... When I heard the Bucs didn't have a D-line coach ... I called up Dominik and said ... 'Bring him in for an interview, and if you're not blown away by him, call me back and tell me don't ever call you back and I'll delete your number.' He called me back and said, 'My God.' I said, 'I told you.'
On if he thinks about the Hall of Fame:
"I don't. If I'm that lucky, that somebody says those 13 years that Warren did, that puts him in that class, you're talking about a country boy from Plymouth, Florida. That's a long way from home, boy. If I'm that lucky to get in that position, I'll cry like a baby."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com