He heard it once. Then twice. Three different times. From three "credible sources" at the Pro Bowl in Orlando last January, Gerald McCoy was given a humbling critique of his career, which has included zero playoff appearances in seven seasons.
McCoy said he was told that he has not produced enough fourth-quarter sacks with everything on the line in order for the Bucs to win football games.
And, as the defensive tackle has come to realize, sacks put the game in the bag.
"I was just always taught when more than one person is saying the same thing, there's got to be some truth to it," McCoy said Monday, without revealing who provided the matching evaluations.
"The gist of what it is, is I haven't done enough to lead this team. Simple as that. If this team goes to the next level, as much as you need a franchise quarterback and those things are great, this organization, this team to win a Super Bowl was built on defense.
"That guy in the middle is what makes everything roll," McCoy said. "Of course, they brought 99 (Warren Sapp) to me numerous times. Any dominant defense had a dominant guy in the middle and basically, I just haven't been enough for my team. I won't get into the details, but I kind of took it personal. It's something I need to address moving forward."
McCoy is right. Though 31 percent of his career sacks have come in the fourth quarter, most occurred with the outcome already decided.
Only two of his seven sacks last season came in the fourth quarter, and he failed to record one in the last four games. Tampa Bay went 9-7 and missed the playoffs by the third tiebreaker to Detroit.
McCoy has had 22 sacks the last three seasons — none with the game within eight points or less. His last such sack came in 2013, when the Dolphins trailed by three in Tampa. McCoy sacked Ryan Tannehill inside the two-minute warning as Miami was driving for a tying field goal.
Since Tampa Bay drafted him No. 3 overall in 2010, McCoy always has been unfairly compared to Sapp, one of only five first-ballot defensive tackles in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Although McCoy, 29, was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl in 2016, he has lacked the memorable late-game heroics Sapp was known for.
"For them to say that when I'm around all these great players, it really hit home," McCoy said. "You're here, but …
"After they said that, I wanted to go look at all of my fourth quarters over the past two years. The great ones make the plays in the fourth quarter."
Last season, Atlanta coaches said their strategy was to try to tire McCoy early so he wouldn't be effective late.
"Where is my energy in the fourth quarter?' McCoy said. "Is my technique dropping in the fourth quarter?"
McCoy said he talked football with former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, a Hall of Famer, at a school recital about how Sapp produced game-sealing sacks.
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"(Brooks) told me he would watch Sapp. He knew his mannerisms, he knew his time clock, he knew everything," McCoy said. "He would say, 'I knew in the first quarter and the fourth quarter, it was Sapp time.' "
McCoy said he specifically watched his performance in the fourth quarter of losses to the Cowboys and Saints. Had the Bucs won either of those games, they would have reached the playoffs.
"My knees hurt. I've played a lot of snaps and taken a lot of double-teams," McCoy said. "And time is ticking, man. So I've got a lot of work to do in a short period of time.
"My approach to everything will be different. The media. My workouts. Practice. The meeting room. Games. Something has to change."