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Thursday, March 6, 2008
Updated: March 7, 9:52 AM ET
He departs in Favre's shadow, but Sapp deserves a spotlight

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

Warren Sapp certainly could have benefited from better timing. When the Oakland Raiders defensive tackle finalized his retirement on the same day that Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre was calling it quits, you knew whom the spotlight would favor.

Sapp's departure from the NFL generated little if any buzz. Favre's decision to walk out the door, on the other hand, created so many tremors around the league that you would have thought God had packed it in earlier this week.

The reality here is that Sapp's 13-year career is also worth putting into perspective. It's even more critical now because in a few years we'll be arguing about whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame. Sure, he was a dominant defensive lineman. But sensational talent and prolific productivity don't make you a lock for the Hall of Fame. If they did, then perennial Pro Bowlers such as Derrick Thomas and Cris Carter certainly would be enshrined by now.

For my money, Sapp belongs in the Hall. He was such a dominant pass-rusher that he finished his career with 96½ sacks, a mind-boggling number for a player who makes his living in the middle of the trenches. He also was a fierce run defender who made the "three-technique" position (which requires a tackle to line up on the outside shoulder of the guard) a marquee spot during nine seasons in Tampa Bay.

"Normally you see defensive ends or pass-rushing outside linebackers who wind up in the 100-sack range for their careers," said Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, who was an assistant in Tampa Bay from 1996-2000.

Brett Favre and Warren Sapp
Brett Favre and Warren Sapp had intense NFC divisional meetings when Sapp (right) was a Buccaneer. In the December 2007 meeting here, Farve and Sapp -- then a Raider -- exhanged greetings again.

"He got to that level by being a three-technique guy. You want to talk about a great football player -- Sapp could do it all."

Edwards added that Sapp's intelligence and leadership were important factors in his success. When Tony Dungy first became Tampa Bay's head coach in 1996, he found a demoralized team that had become far too accustomed to losing. Dungy knew he had to change the mind-set in his locker room, and he saw Sapp as a valuable instrument in achieving that goal.

The Bucs needed to be strong up the middle in Dungy's Tampa 2 defense, and Sapp -- along with linebacker Derrick Brooks and safety John Lynch behind him -- was best-suited to provide both the temperament and tenacity Dungy coveted.

The NFL had rarely seen a player of his size (standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 300 pounds, he wasn't the biggest interior lineman around) create so many problems with his quickness.

Edwards said Sapp's job was "to be a disrupter," and he turned that role into an art form. Even in practice, Sapp was incapable of slowing down his motor. As former Bucs offensive tackle Roman Oben, who played in Tampa Bay from 2002 and 2003, said, "When you went against Sapp in practice, you always knew it was going to be a lot easier to go against somebody else on game days."

But here's the tough part for Sapp when people start weighing his Hall of Fame credentials: His time in Tampa Bay now feels like it was eons ago. He spent the past four years in Oakland, and it's an understatement to say his career fizzled there. Sapp wound up playing out of position in the 3-4 defense that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan used during Sapp's first two years in Oakland. Sapp's weight also ballooned during that time, and he generated only 7½ sacks combined in 2004 and 2005.

Even when he had good moments on those lousy teams -- he enjoyed a bounce-back year with 10 sacks in 2006 -- few people noticed outside of the Bay Area.

Warren Sapp, Packers team security coordinator Mike Cygan, and Mike Sherman
In 2002, Warren Sapp's controversial hit on Packers offensive lineman Chad Clifton (not pictured) led to a dispute between Sapp (left) and then Packers coach Mike Sherman (right).
There also was the controversy that followed him.

Though many teammates loved Sapp, he also had a well-earned reputation for boorish behavior. He drew a $50,000 fine for bumping an official in 2003 and a $75,000 fine after three personal fouls led to his ejection in a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars this past season.

Of course, it's hard to forget the borderline hit Sapp laid on unsuspecting Green Bay offensive tackle Chad Clifton in 2002, a vicious block on an interception that easily could have ended Clifton's career. Sapp's lack of remorse on that play -- along with his shouting match with former Packers head coach Mike Sherman after the game -- offered a glimpse of the person he could be when he wasn't displaying his quick wit and natural charisma.

I think he'll need a turnaround like the one George Foreman had. He has to become a more likable guy because there are some people who won't let go of the negative stuff. But whatever you say about the guy, he was a great player.

--Roman Oben, a former teammate of Warren Sapp, on Sapp

Oben agrees that Sapp could use some image repair now that his career has ended. "I think he'll need a turnaround like the one George Foreman had," Oben said.

"He has to become a more likable guy because there are some people who won't let go of the negative stuff. But whatever you say about the guy, he was a great player. You ask people in this league who they'd want when they needed a big play on third-and-5, and nine out of 10 guys would take him. Because he usually delivered in those situations."

That's actually how Sapp should be remembered. He was a difference-maker who loved the big stage, and it's no coincidence that he produced some of his strongest performances against Favre. Those two brought out the best in each other, especially when Green Bay was the dominant team of the mid-1990s and the Bucs were searching for an identity. Those were the wonder years in Tampa, and it's hard to imagine the franchise winning a Super Bowl during the 2002 season without Sapp's hunger spurring them on in more adverse times.

After all, that desire drove Sapp from the day the former University of Miami star entered the NFL as the 12th overall pick in the 1995 draft, a slight that resulted from his testing positive for marijuana at that year's combine. It helped him earn Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1999 along with seven Pro Bowl selections during his career.

It's also the reason so many teams have struggled to find another player who can be the next Warren Sapp. The bottom line is that there was only one of those. And that, ultimately, should be enough evidence to rank him with the best who ever played the game.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com. He is a guest commentator on "Rome Is Burning" this week on ESPN.