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Sapp's new role: as a memory

Published March 21, 2004

They talked about this day for years. Not that they were planning for it, or even expecting it. But at idle moments around One Buc Place, team officials would discuss the possibility of Warren Sapp leaving the premises.

The day it happened, they agreed, would be terribly sad.

The day after, they assumed, would involve a celebration.

So it goes with Sapp. A player who could generate devotion and hostility in equal amounts, occasionally within the same conversation.

Now he is gone, and the only certainty is this:

The place will never be the same.

Sapp may be the best player to have worn a Tampa Bay uniform of any kind. And, if he is not, he is certainly the most recognizable.

He was national when the Bucs were still local. Before anyone realized Tampa Bay was building a defense for the ages, everyone knew Sapp was the future.

He spent nine seasons here, mostly successful and never dull.

Sapp would take on the commissioner. He would torch his team's offensive coordinator. He would poke fun at other players and even play hide-the-DNA when the line for paternity suits outgrew the express lane.

Tough, loud, strong. Boisterous and merciless. Willing to go through anyone to reach the prize. And that was all before he left his locker.

He was witty. He was charming. His was the smile you hoped to see when the locker room doors parted. That Warren Sapp will be missed.

He could also be petulant. He could be rude. He could walk past a Bucs employee he'd known for years and never acknowledge his presence. That Warren Sapp overstayed his welcome by several years.

Now he is gone, and the major question is this:

Are the Bucs better off today?

Yes, is the short answer. The pass rush may be weaker, the run defense may have sprung a hole, but the payroll has been spared a major hit.

At 31, Sapp was not the same player he was at 28. His presence was still a concern for opposing coaches and his skills were still feared by linemen.

But, and this is no secret, his numbers have been in a three-year decline. For a player of impact, his influence was no longer immediately apparent.

The Bucs preferred he stay, but they were not going to pay tomorrow's dollars for yesterday's Sapp. Not by a long shot.

So he will go to Oakland for a seven-year, $36.6-million deal with a $7-million signing bonus. That's not a contract offer, that's a cry for help.

The Bucs, the team that knows him best, would not have paid half that salary. The Falcons, with a general manager who knows him well, had no interest at any price. The Colts, with a coach who helped make him a star, were never seriously in the running.

Only in Oakland did they believe he would fit well. A place where fans appreciate the boorish side of life. A place where the owner has an inflated opinion of himself. A place where the roster creaks and moans with age.

Alas, you cannot blame Sapp for chasing the dollars. This is the last big deal of his career, and it makes sense to value size it.

Nor can you blame the Bucs for letting him go. This is a franchise in flux and it could not afford to tie up too much of the salary cap in memories.

Still, the split has its own sense of sorrow. For the second time in 10 days, the Bucs are waving goodbye to one of the best players they have known.

Go back in time. Back to 1996. The Bucs were still in orange. Tampa Stadium was still standing. That was the year Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch became full-time starters for the first time.

It was also the last of 14 consecutive losing seasons in Tampa Bay.

More than any other players, Sapp, Brooks and Lynch were the ones responsible for changing history. For making the Bucs a franchise of envy and delight instead of pity and humiliation.

Lynch left against his will this month. Sapp leaves now, at least partly with regret.

The moves are related, but they do not feel completely similar. Lynch was a great player but was never as feared as Sapp. Even so, his departure seemed to rankle more because of his standing in the community.

Sapp always has been harder to embrace.

And, frankly, that's a shame.

It wouldn't have taken much effort for Sapp to walk away a beloved figure. Fans are willing to cut slack for any player of prominence. They will look the other way at occasional transgressions and forgive the inevitable slights.

But Sapp, it seems, went out of his way to play the role of bully. He was surly in public and could be even worse in private.

If Sapp was surprised the renegade Raiders were the only team willing to throw obscene amounts of cash his way, he should not have been.

The free-agency period has been a lesson in tolerance. Pain-in-the-bottom players are still in high demand if their skills warrant it. But a locker-room headache is not worth the price when his production begins to decline.

So, yes, it's no doubt sad to see the Bucs part ways with another piece of the most glorious time in franchise history.

But, no, it's not the worst thing to ever happen at One Buc Place.

I don't know about you, but I wish I felt worse.

[Last modified March 21, 2004, 01:35:34]

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