© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2002
DETROIT -- If you want power, then Warren Sapp is your man.
There are times he comes in fast and low, like a shark in shallow water. When Sapp is at his best, wading through linemen and caving in the offensive design of the opposition, you are sure. You may think he is unforgiveable and you may think he is unforgiving, but there are times you think Sapp is the best hunter in the pack.
If you want pizazz, though, you think of Simeon Rice.
He is a blur of motion from the blindside, a man with ridiculous legs and absurd wingspan, stretching around offensive tackles like a cartoon character, knocking the ball from the hands of quarterbacks. All season, he has humbled tackles and harassed quarterbacks. You may think he is electric, and you may think he is eclectic, but there are moments you are sure, Rice is the sharpest knife in the drawer.
If you want production, however, you think of Derrick Brooks.
He runs the way few linebackers have ever run, covering the width of the field so thoroughly you'd think it had been subdivided. He is the best tackler in the NFL. And he does it every week, without fail. You may think he is ruthless, and you may think he is relentless, but there are a periods when you are convinced Brooks is the biggest gun in the arsenal.
Ah, you think.
But which Bucs' defensive player is the best, really?
I know, I know. In some ways, this is like asking which bullet killed Sonny Corleone. The way the Bucs' defense has played all year, it doesn't really matter.
Still, it's a question that bears discussion. Soon, the NFL will name its defensive player of the year. In a year in which offense has taken over, in a year in which Brian Urlacher of the Bears and Ray Lewis of the Ravens have been injured, in which Michael Strahan's sacks are down, which one of the Bucs might you pick?
Think about this for a minute. The Bucs also have John Lynch, who has been to Hawaii so many times he's registered to vote. They have Ronde Barber, a cornerback other teams go out of their way to avoid. They have Brian Kelly, probably the most improved player in the NFL. They have Shelton Quarles, who has answered the team's void at middle linebacker. They have Dexter Jackson and his highlight-reel hits. They have Booger McFarland, who has more in common with Sapp than the shape of his shadow.
And we aren't talking about any of those guys.
This is how good the Bucs' defense has played. It seems intent on taking most of the defensive awards and having a tug-of-war over them. It could place six, arguably seven players, in the Pro Bowl.
But if you could pick one guy, just one, who would it be?
A little advice: Don't ask Monte Kiffin for help on this one. He starts laughing at you halfway through the question, then he takes you on this weird journey through the depth chart with his answer. Before he's done, he's mentioned every starter and -- no lie -- six backups. It's like asking a grandfather who the smartest grandchild is; he's going to wear you out with photographs.
"I'm not going to tell you," he finally says. "I like all my guys."
Who is the alpha wolf? Brooks, who already has tied an NFL record for touchdowns by a defender this season? Rice, who leads the league in sacks? Sapp, who is having his best season since '99, when he was the defensive player of the year?
Solomon Wilcots, who played safety for the Bengals when it was okay to admit it, talks with reverence about the Bucs' defense. But if you're going to push the issue, he thinks Sapp is still the ranking player around here.
"As far as changing what the opposing offense does, week to week, it's Sapp," Wilcots said. "He makes everyone better. If he's getting penetration, Brooks is able to run and make all those tackles, and Rice gets man blocking, and the secondary doesn't have to cover as long.
"Think of the weeks when Sapp hasn't played well. It's tough on everyone. If Rice has a bad game, or Brooks, you don't notice it as much. Sapp is the alpha wolf."
Some weeks, that's true. Some weeks, however, Sapp seems to have a problem. Every time he takes aim on a quarterback, Rice seems to get there first.
Amazing, really, when you think that last year, Rice seemed to struggle for the first half of the season. Then he seemed to match the pace and the competitiveness of the rest of this defense, and he has been a force.
Two weeks ago Rice got much of the buzz in the conversation for defensive player of the year. He set an NFL record with multiple sacks in five straight games, and he was playing the run well enough to quiet his old critics.
Last week, after playing perhaps the best half of football of his career, the emphasis shifted back to Brooks. Brooks made a mission of stopping all the talk about Michael Vick, and by the time he was over, Sapp was saying, again, that Brooks was the best the Bucs had to offer.
So whom do you choose? A lot of it depends, of course, on what you're looking for. It's like asking whether rock, scissors or paper is strongest. It depends on what you need at the time.
Here's a hint. Forget about statistics. All tackles, all sacks, are not created equal. There are moments in the game that are bigger than other moments, important plays that determine who wins.
For eight years, one player has made most of the big tackles for the Bucs. On the best defense in the NFL, one player has made plays more consistently than anyone else.
My vote for NFL defensive player of the year?
But, um, you might want to check with me again on Monday.