What a rush
The Bucs' Warren Sapp gets an education during a conversation with two of the best pass rushers, Deacon Jones and Bruce Smith.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002
ATLANTA -- Three of the NFL's greatest pass rushers of the last three decades were seated at a table in a makeshift hospitality room off stage at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles.
Every drink tossed back was served up with a tale of a quarterback thrown down until they felt more bloodthirsty for another round.
Deacon Jones, the most feared of the Rams Fearsome Foursome, was flanked by Bruce Smith, the future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end of the Bills and Redskins, and Warren Sapp, the Bucs' eventual all-time sack leader.
The three had participated in a celebrity comedy special featuring an appearance by Sheryl Crow, and backstage the beer and the conversation never went flat until the sun came up over Santa Monica Boulevard.
It was 3:30 in the morning when Jones yelled to his wife, "Baby, we're going to be here awhile."
If Smith and Jones are considered royalty among the league's defenders, Sapp felt like the crown prince as he soaked up the lessons like a sponge.
"I would tell quarterbacks, "I'm here for one reason, to put as much pain in your back and as much fear in your heart as possible. I'm going to be here every Sunday at 1:05. You'd better hope I die, because if I'm here Sunday, I'm going to put a whipping on your a--,' " Jones said.
Sapp, playing as well as he ever has in his eighth NFL season, let's out a booming laugh as he recalls that night two years ago.
"It was one of those nights, then one of those mornings," Sapp said. "It was just us and the bartender, and he was on point. You had to be there, just to hear their passion for the game.
"I wanted to travel with them. Put me in the car too. You know? I got in the car and traveled the '70s with Deacon, then I traveled the '80s and '90s with Bruce. I came along with him through Bruce Armstrong and all the great ones he played, Richmond Webb, and all the great ones he had to rush. They're all about a nasty, tenacious rush and inflicting as much pain on the quarterback as possible. I mean, Bruce was talking about hunting Dan Marino as if Dan Marino had just slapped his mama."
"Slapped my mama?" Jones said. "I think like they shot her."
Jones does his best to explain.
"Look, I was out to hurt the guy," he said. "I never hit a man illegally, but I'd try to tear his head off. If you kill the head of the snake, the body dies. And the quarterback is the head. I played them like that."
Jones said he began watching Sapp when he was at the University of Miami, although the two never met until he became a pro. "I can tell bull---- from smack," Jones said. "I know when a guy is coming to play and means what he says. He could play in any era.
"I can't sit down and talk to anybody who's not committed to game. Like when a guy tells me he can't play with pain, I say, "Why did you get into this business?' From the time you start playing Pop Warner football, your body starts to do downhill."
But at a time when defensive linemen begin to show a decline, Sapp's game still is on the rise. What he has lost in strength and quickness he more than compensates for in experience and becoming a technician at his trade.
"How did you combat them when they tried to take away your move?" Sapp asked Smith.
"Take away my move? They can't take away my move!" Smith said.
For Sapp, his first move always begins the same. He is as quick off the ball as any defensive lineman in the NFL, in part because of something he learned from Sean Jones at the '98 Pro Bowl. Instead of watching the ball, Sapp focuses on the quarterback's hands under center and ignores the cadence. In most instances, when a quarterback spreads his fingers under center, he is ready to receive the football.
"I'm going to tell you like this. It's just like Randy Johnson. You know the fastball is coming, right? You just don't know if it's inside, outside, up, down or if it's that slider," Sapp said. "It's your delivery. How are you coming at him? He thinks here comes the fastball. Oh, it's the change. Oh, it's the slider. Everything looks the same. It's the delivery. How are you coming off the ball? Boom. First down or third down, it's the same.
"You can't tell if it's a game with Simeon (Rice) or some different things going on, or a game with (Anthony) McFarland, you don't know what's going on. Now he's dead. He doesn't know where you're going."
Where Sapp is headed could be to Canton, Ohio. He has been voted to start five straight Pro Bowls and needs 10 more sacks to tie Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon for the most in club history with 78.5.
This season Sapp leads the Bucs with four sacks and has been dominant against the run. He appears to have fully recovered from a torn rotator cuff that was partly responsible for his sack totals slipping to six in 2001.
"He had to play, he can't accept being injured because he's the leader of the team," Jones said of Sapp's decision to conceal the injury until after the season. "We had a rule. Bone had to be sticking out of the skin before you get out of here. You'd go to the sideline shoot that sucker up. That attitude ain't there anymore.
"I looked at a lot of film last year when I was working with Fox. I watch these guys, man, and see some guy making $2.5-million and playing in specialization situations. Rushing on third and 8. Man, for $2.5-million, I'd killed somebody."
That's Deacon. Sapp still laughs when he thinks about that night, still shakes his head in disbelief at the way the suds and the bad blood spilled over as Jones, Smith and Sapp sat there attacking imaginary quarterbacks until the darkness and the taps ran out.
"That's Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs with Ted Williams talking hitting, and one of them just got into the league and is trying to find it," Sapp said. "I just sat there and tried to absorb everything I could. It was just about rushing and technique and different things you see, your hands, your eyes, your feet."
And this. With genuine pain in his voice, Jones warned Smith and Sapp to try to not leave the game without playing in a Super Bowl.
"I never got a scratch playing football, but I walked out of that game with a broken heart because I didn't get a title," Jones said. "I sit here in retirement today knowing I dominated that game and it still don't sit well on my stomach that I never won a Super Bowl. I've been to almost every one of them, but I've never seen a game from the field. I couldn't go into the stadium. I tell them all to get one while they can before you sit over here and can't do nothing about it."
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