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This move filled with questions

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 22, 2000


Tell us more, Tony.

On the surface, it seems Monday-night madness to cut Brad Culpepper. To my non-coaching eyes, he looked so solid, so zealous, so knowledgeable and so important to what the Bucs do with their big-reputation defense.

I must've missed something.

Was it Culpepper's age (31)? In the NFL, old can mean 33. His play, to me, wasn't looking gray. Was it money? Nah, in a league of tycoons, Brad was well back in the payday queue.

Had the fiery talents of No. 77 evaporated while most of us were looking elsewhere, more concerned with replacing Hardy Nickerson at linebacker, or that eternal Tampa Bay quest for more productive offense.

Perhaps this is nothing more complicated than the frigid, dark side of the pro football business, where a younger hunk, Booger McFarland, potently progresses and coach Tony Dungy opts to grit those caring teeth of his, bumping the elder guy sans ceremony or gold watch or chance to wear pewter in pursuit of Super Bowl XXXV.

Has anybody told Warren Sapp? Those two defensive linemen from such opposite backgrounds were odd-couple soulmates. Strong bond. Forever nagging each other. Always playing football catch in idle practice times.

Brad, the well-to-do kid from state capital Tallahassee and an old-fashioned Florida political family, meshing so effectively with No. 99, the trash-talker with dreadlocks from a place called Plymouth, a chap who grew up so poor and politically powerless.

Sapp seemed to love Culpepper.

This, be assured, is something Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin saw as fitting for the Bucs of now, putting the next-to-Sapp onus on the 300-pound McFarland, last year's No. 1 draft pick from LSU. Funny, but it's the second time Dungy has fired Culpepper. It happened years ago when Dungy was Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator.

Not funny really, just intriguing.

We jabber so much about Tampa Bay's ever-changing, forever-starving offense, now spiced by the snagging of gifted wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. Just maybe, the department of Bucs defensive studs, with all its skill and personalities and chemistry, can be somewhat taken for granted.

We've come to figure, Sunday after Sunday, defense is likely to control most Bucs opponents, enough so that even a few points from a quarterback, runners, receivers and a kicker give them a stout chance to win.

Backbone of Super Bowl hopes.

But what effect might the punting of Culpepper have on Bucs D? Already departed was a well-aged, efficient, playmaking middle linebacker. Tampa Bay thought Nickerson, at 36, wasn't worth the dough he demanded. Jacksonville saw him as a wise investment. So he's with the Jaguars, in their Super Bowl hunt. Now it's the DT set that is broken, leaving Sapp to partner with the kid from Louisiana.

It won't be the same.

Maybe worse, perhaps better.

Culpepper was effusive, one of the NFL's sharpest minds. Former student body vice president at the University of Florida. A clever gent with good-old-boy charm and plenty of smarts to be lawyer, doctor or at least co-captain of industry.

Always an overachiever. Always with big heart.

Don't worry about Brad. He'll do well, whether it's further football work or moving on to real-world pursuits. Our community frets should be more for the Bucs he leaves behind. Their exhibition form has been well shy of Super Bowl style.

What now?

You wonder the effects of Culpepper's axing on some considerable huskies, including safety John Lynch, linebacker Derrick Brooks and corner Donnie Abraham. Pro sports, at best, have a harsh side. This one feels especially scratchy.

Sapp, Lynch, Brooks, Abraham and the others still are getting heavy paychecks. Still wearing the red pirate flag on their hard hats. They should be expected to deliver nothing less than in Tampa Bay's heroic defensive past. Still, in their heads, being human beings, what must be spinning this morning?

Like all these jocks, I'm selfish. My game is sports writing, so I will miss No. 77 as a bright, witty, honest commentator on the highs, lows and emotions of the Bucs. I saw him as franchise poet laureate.

That's no reason to keep Culpepper around, but I thought I saw lots of terrific playing fromSapp's buddy. Even if Culpepper were a jerk, a lousy quote and Warren's arch-enemy, I'd still wonder about Monday's decision.

Your turn, Booger. Stretch your feet, kid, because the shoes of No. 77 were, for multiple reasons, considerable.

I could be wronger than wrong. Maybe it was just Culpepper's time to go. Dungy knows a thousand times more about football than an old sports writer. But, working with what I have, the Culpepper move makes even Tuesday morning's fresh Florida orange juice hard to swallow.

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