Culpepper's release was another jolt to the Bucs' chemistry, which will be a preseason finale focus.
By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000
TAMPA -- Bucs coach Tony Dungy doesn't pull on a lab coat and gloves when he is ready to experiment with a lineup change, but he is concerned about team chemistry.
It's a key component to winning and one that has been disturbed recently by the shake-ups on offense and defense.
That's what makes tonight's preseason finale against Kansas City so interesting. The Bucs have two new starters on defense and at least five on offense. And if it is not handled with care, so much transition can lead to problems.
"Chemistry is very important, and it's something you take into consideration," Dungy said. "That's one thing I learned from Denny (Green, Vikings coach). Every move that he made, he thought about the impact it would have on the team and what the likely outcome of that would be. So it's not something you take lightly.
"Defensively, we've gone through some changes that way. We've taken two starters from the group last year -- at least two. Offensively, we've got two (new) offensive linemen. We've got a new guy playing quarterback from Day 1. We've got our running backs doing different things. We've got new receivers in the mix. It's going to take a little while to get that whole thing to come together."
No Dungy move has caused a bigger reaction among fans and players than starting nose tackle Brad Culpepper's release Monday.
Culpepper, 31, who signed with the Chicago Bears two days later, is the second starter to be replaced on defense since the end of last season. Five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Hardy Nickerson signed with Jacksonville as a free agent in February.
Nickerson made all the defensive calls in the huddle and routinely read offensive formations, borrowing on his decade-plus of experience to make presnap reads of plays.
"When I first got here, Hardy used to look in the backfield and see a draw play, for some ungodly reason," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "He'd see it and call a different defense. We don't do that anymore."
The Bucs began the preseason by making linebacker Jamie Duncan, Nickerson's replacement, call the defensive alignments. But Duncan is in only his third season and first as a starter. The responsibility was shifted last week to Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks.
Nobody took the loss of Culpepper harder than Sapp, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, and not only because Culpepper was his best friend on the team. Sapp relied on him to read the offensive fronts, put the defensive line in position and call pass-rushing stunts.
"When I went into a ballgame, I never had to worry about any calls or anything like that because he had the protections," Sapp said. "He had where the center was going. He used to tell me, "Over there.' I'd look at him, and he'd say, "Just go over there.' And I trusted him, and he always put me in a good situation.
"It's like you had the brains and the brawn. I'm no dummy myself. But it was his responsibility, and he took that part of it to put me in the right position to be able go out and make plays. All I had to do was do my thing and make the play. We worked so well together. It's something that I just can't replace.
"When you have a situation where now that's gone and now you're replacing it, do I have the same ability to say I trust you? You want to say that you do, but then again, you don't know. And not knowing is the scariest thing for a defense."
Sapp's job will be to make the defensive line calls, paying particular attention to nose tackle Anthony McFarland, who will make his first start tonight against the Chiefs.
"We made this bed. We've got to lay in it, and we've got a pretty good guy to get in the bed with us," Sapp said of McFarland.
Safety John Lynch said the defense this preseason has had breakdowns and lapses in communication, and failed to cover certain gaps, which led to big plays.
"I don't think you can underestimate how important chemistry is," he said. "I think winning (has) a large part in establishing good chemistry, but I think chemistry is a large part of becoming a winner, too. That's why this preseason for us as a defensive unit has been invaluable. There's kinks that we have to work out.
"Because I think we're still damn good, but all the idiosyncrasies that go into making it that good, we've got to work on. The basics we all have down, but the smallest things, the finest points, we're still brushing up on."
In the preseason finale, starters are expected to play a portion of the first half. They hope it is enough time for a chemistry lesson.
"I think the whole defense realizes that, and we've got to come out and get a real solid game," Sapp said. "Don't open no can of worms and make people think that there's something wrong, that there's a screw loose in the machine. This machine is going to run well. We've just got to figure out how it's going to work."