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Making History

October 14, 2003

Between the Falcons not going for a final-drive TD (keeping the combined point score in last night's St. Louis Rams/Atlanta Falcons game steady at 36, well below the 43 I needed to win the work pool) and the Red Sox using knuckleball trickery from Tim Wakefield to beat the Yankees, last night was not a good sports night for me. Bad times.

2003 Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons' defensive line is looking for answers.

The Rams/Falcons game did bring up an interesting debate between Scott Massey and I -- can the Falcons still make the playoffs if Michael Vick is back in three weeks? I say: NO! That Falcons secondary looked incredibly porous last night. There were some who listened to my words in August warning that Atlanta's defense (besides Keith Brooking) was grossly overrated.

Now, Vick can do some amazing things (as he proved last season), but I don't think even Vick can lead that Falcons team out of a 1-7 or 2-6 hole all the way to a playoff berth. You'd need to damn near run the table at that point, oh and hope that you can score more than your defense gives up. Incidentally Atlanta's win at Dallas in Week One sure looks like a fluke in hindsight.

I've expounded at great lengths in private on what I think Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Rich McKay should do with controversial DT Warren Sapp... and now I'll share those thoughts with you. Sapp, who is making in excess of six millions dollars, is in the final year of his contract with the Bucs.

Sapp is one of the most well-known defensive players in the game, to be sure. His well-documented off the field behavior -- from being rude to fans to allegedly impregnating three different women behind his wife's back -- isn't particularly something to take pride in. His comments this past weekend about the NFL were no less racist than what Rush Limbaugh said about Eagles QB Donovan McNabb. But, societal rules being what they are, he'll get a free pass on that.

Warren Sapp
Warren Sapp scored his first NFL touchdown as a rookie in 1995.

There are some who acknowledge Sapp's poor actions away from the gridiron, but also claim that he's one of the premiere defensive tackles in the league. At one point, that would be true. But not anymore. Here's the facts:

1996 - 9 sacks, 51 tackles
1997 - 10˝ sacks, 58 tackles
1998 - 7 sacks, 45 tackles
1999 - 12˝ sacks, 41 tackles
2000 - 16˝ sacks, 52 tackles
2001 - 6 sacks, 36 tackles
2002 - 7˝ sacks, 47 tackles

Through five games this season, he has two sacks (albiet both in mop-in time this past week vs. Washington) and 14 tackles. Before the fourth quarter of last week's game, Sapp had gone double-digit consecutive regular season games without recording a single sack (dating back to the 2002 campaign).

Has Sapp faced double and triple teams? Yes, on certain plays. But watch closely, and you'll see him in one-on-one situations on plenty of plays... especially on draws or delays designed to fool him into moving out of his spot to chase the quarterback. As much of a head-hunter as Sapp is against quarterbacks, run-stopping is not his forté.

To be sure, Sapp has avoided injury for the bulk of his career. He's played in at least 15 regular season games in every year since he entered the league in 1995. That's a strong performance in such a physically demanding sport.

Unfortunately, as Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows said, "Time doesn't give a reason." Sapp turns 31 before the end of the year. In NFL terms, that's leaning precariously toward the early 30s drop-off that hits so many defensive linemen. And now Sapp wants a new contract. To the tune of 7˝ million dollars.

Now, in the old days of the NFL, teams could stockpile players through careful drafting and detailed scouting. But in the era of the salary cap, that's just not so anymore. A good backup can become a well-paid starter elsewhere; you won't see anymore late 70s Steelers-type teams so long as this system is in effect. But, that's what the NFL wants, and it's worlds better than the system in place for Major League Baseball.

Ken Dilger
Ken Dilger is one of many players to feel the crunch of the NFL salary cap.

But the salary cap is king. You have to have money to maneuver, both in retaining talent and signing new players (both via the draft and free agency). It's a very delicate balance. Pro Bowlers get cut in the off-season because they won't take a salary cut (i.e. TE Ken Dilger from the Colts after the 2001 season). It's the tough reality of modern NFL economics.

Also, the Bucs need money to retain their other top stars. Derrick Brooks was the NFL's Defensive MVP last year. Simeon Rice is on pace to have the best season of any defensive end in the league (with his four sack performance against the Redskins on Sunday). Keeping elite players like that costs money. Money that might not be there by signing Warren Sapp to a new contract. So, with that in mind, consider the implications of investing 7˝ million in a 31 year old DT. It will make filling the other 50-something roster spots difficult. Further complicating matters is that Tampa Bay gave up several high draft picks in paying the ransom to Oakland that freed Jon Gruden to become the head coach of the Bucs. Because of this, Tampa hasn't been able to bring in the young talent at a reasonable cost that teams need to build for success 4-5 years down the line. Tampa Bay got QB Chris Simms as a steal at the end of the 3rd round of last year's draft, but that's but one position. Running back is a tough spot for them, with Michael Pittman facing felony charges and Mike Alstott finally starting to show some wear and tear from the brutal hits he's taken for several years now. John Lynch isn't getting any younger at safety; the Bucs' corner opposite Ronde Barber is a concern. The offensive line has had more than its share of problems.

But there's no denying that the Bucs would like to keep Sapp around, even with his surly attitude and distracting antics and troublesome behavior. But not for 7˝ million. That's just not feasable.

Here's what I expect McKay to do: slap the Transition Free Agent tag on Sapp. It's an under-publicized codicil in the NFL Players Union agreement that each team has the chance to declare one player as a "Transition Free Agent" and one as a "Franchise Free Agent". With the Franchise tag, that player won't be going anywhere. He can either work out a long-term deal with the team, sign a one-year contract for the average price of the top five paid DTs in the league, or he can sit at home and earn nothing. While creating contentious negotiations at times, the Franchise tag helps keep elite players with their current teams.

The Transition tag is a little stickier. It allows a player with tenure (like Sapp) to check out the free agent market. Let's say that the Arizona Cardinals decide to sign Sapp to a 3 year, 30 million dollar deal (back-loaded like you wouldn't believe, but nonetheless 3/$30M). And, for the sake of argument, let's say the Cardinals have the #6 pick in the NFL Draft. The Bucs can contemplate the deal and then do one of two things. They can match, meaning they'd keep Sapp and pay him what the Cards would've (and thus let Arizona do their negotiating for them). Or... they could let Sapp go, but in return they'd get Arizona's first round draft choice. By NFL rules, a team that signs a Transition free agent is required to relinquish a pick in the forthcoming draft that corresponds to the round that the player was picked in. The Bucs took Sapp as a first rounder, so the Cardinals would have to give up their first round pick to the Bucs.

Tommie Harris
Oklahoma DT Tommie Harris runs an incredibly fast 4.67 forty yard dash.

Could you imagine what the Bucs could do with a high pick like that? There are so many options. Replace Sapp with a blue-chip DT ten years his junior, like Oklahoma's Tommie Harris. Michigan WR Marquise Walker didn't pan out as a third round pick for Tampa Bay two years ago, but perhaps they could select a Roy Williams or a Reggie Williams or a Rashaun Woods to add some youth to their receiving core. Or... take Miami Hurricanes free safety Sean Taylor. Imagine Taylor AND strong safety John Lynch in the same secondary!?! Good grief. Then take a top notch RB down later in the draft wherever the Bucs end up picking with their own pick, someone like Northern Illinois' Michael Turner or Michigan's Chris Perry... Not to slip into Draft King mode, but landing an extra first round pick would give the Bucs all kinds of flexibility.

Look, Tampa Bay Bucs fans should be proud of how their team did under Warren Sapp's tenure with the club. They went from orange creamsicle jokes to Super Bowl Champs. They became a defensive force that ranks among the all-time greats. And they went from nearly moving to Cleveland (due to lousy attendance at the Old Sombrero) to playing in a sold-out, beautiful stadium with an 80,000 person waiting list.

But the NFL isn't about rewarding past accomplishments in new contracts -- it's about future potential. And in the case of Warren Sapp, the numbers just don't add up... unless the free agent market is incredibly soft. But remember my words: Warren Sapp will be a Transitional Free Agent, and almost for sure will not be a member of the 2004 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Book it.

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