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The incredible shrinking tackle drains us no more

By GARY SHELTON
Published October 18, 2006


He was never strong enough.

He was never sturdy enough.

Most of all, he was never Sapp enough.

Tampa Bay's longest-running Booger joke came to an end Tuesday when the Bucs shipped the largely invisible Anthony McFarland away for a second-round draft choice. In the end, the news was not that Booger was gone; it was the sudden realization that he had been here at all.

With McFarland, there simply wasn't enough there there. He was never the pass rusher he should have been and was no longer the run stopper he once was. He was never a self-starter and never an iron man. As another piece of a once-dominant defense leaves, he does not feel like enough of a loss to fret over.

It's a shame. In most seasons, with most players, most of us - including Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen - would hate the idea of trading in today for tomorrow. And let's face it: It's hard to believe the Bucs would have made this deal if they were 3-2.

But when a player's impact is as small as McFarland's had become, a second-round draft pick feels as if someone has taken that sputtering used car off your hands. He had 13 tackles in five games - none in either the Atlanta or the New Orleans games. If you run the Bucs' top 250 defensive plays this year, you wouldn't spot him in a highlight.

In the end, McFarland was a size 3 player with a size 10 contract, and even if the Colts' season turns that into a late second-round pick, it feels as if Indianapolis overpaid.

Once, he was going to be Warren Sapp, impact player.

Turns out, he was Aubrey Huff, and what will you bid?

True, it might have been easier for McFarland if he had taken over for a lesser player. Say what you will about Sapp, but in his prime, he was the game's dominant defensive player. You heard it a thousand times: The under-tackle position was the most important of all on this defense, and no one played it as ferociously as Sapp once did.

McFarland never measured up to that. Oh, it was okay that he wasn't as outrageous as Sapp, or that he wasn't as loud, or that he wasn't as crass. But as a player, Sapp was a right jab, so consistently quick that he shamed guards. Somehow, Sapp always seemed larger than life. McFarland? His shoes were always too big. And his contract.

If it seems unfair to compare one tackle to the other, remember, that's what the Bucs did back in 2003 when the salary cap made them choose between the two. McFarland was younger. McFarland was cheaper.

And from the moment they signed McFarland to a six-year, $31-million contract, Sapp's days with the Bucs were numbered. The two played together in 2003, but Sapp's departure was assured when the McFarland deal was done. No team can pay two defensive tackles that much money.

Pay a guy like a star, and it's fair to ask him to play like a star. McFarland rarely did. Most years, he wasn't a bad player. But no, he wasn't Sapp. In his eight seasons, Booger had 20 sacks. In 2000, Sapp had 161/2.

For that matter, McFarland wasn't Kris Jenkins or Rod Coleman, either. I'd be stunned if he ever got a Pro Bowl vote.

For most of this year, McFarland has been a mystery. Did he miss former coach Rod Marinelli that much? Was he injured? Was he uninspired? Should someone call the lost and found?

In other words, no one expected a happy ending here. Most of us thought that, one way or the other, the Bucs and Booger would part ways in the coming offseason. Considering that, a second-round pick looks like found money.

Yeah, this could work out for the Colts, too. Remember, it was former Bucs coach Tony Dungy who was first smitten by McFarland at the Senior Bowl. And Dungy always coaxed the best out of Sapp; maybe he can do the same with Booger. Still, it wasn't going to happen here.

You wonder how this will play in the Bucs' locker room. By and large, veterans hate to see other veterans leave. It makes winning harder.

Like it or not, the Bucs are in a youth movement for now. It is odd to think of it when you remember that Bruce Allen's father, Hall of Fame coach George Allen, coined the phrase "The Future is Now." Odd when you remember how reluctant Gruden was to turn the 2004 season over to younger players.

Perhaps this is healthy. Perhaps the biggest failure of 2004 was that the team didn't step back to look at the larger picture. Perhaps having four of the top 75 or so draft picks next season allows some wounds to heal.

Besides, you can always look at it like this. If you miss Booger on Sunday, just imagine that he's playing against Atlanta or New Orleans. Even from Indianapolis, the guy won't manage fewer than zero tackles.

Ah, Booger.

We hardly saw ye.

[Last modified October 18, 2006, 08:17:11]


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