J.J. Watt will probably win this year’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and if not him then Von Miller. Had those two not had such visibly outstanding seasons, however, you might be hearing a lot more about Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Atkins recorded 12.5 sacks, dominated the line of scrimmage for the Bengals and, according to Pro Football Focus, was one of the four best players in football in 2012.
Here’s how Joel Corry of the National Football Post described Atkin’s potential as the third-year defender began to get more notice in November: “[He] could become the best 3-technique defensive tackle since Warren Sapp.”
Before the 2010 NFL draft, a pair of Big 12 defensive tackles, Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy, were widely (and accurately) expected to go among the top three picks in the opening round. Usually matched with the Buccaneers at pick #3, McCoy was usually described in scouting reports as having a skill set similar to that of Warren Sapp. Eight months later, after Suh had opened his career with a 10-sack season in Detroit, he was drawing the Sapp comparisons. After Suh’s career hit some trouble spots in 2011, Lions Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham ordered his young charge to watch videotape of Sapp in action; a Pro Bowl year followed.
Great defensive tackles emerge in the NFL from time to time. In the middle of the last decade, for a few bright years, it was Atlanta’s Rod Coleman. Here’s how an anonymous scout described Coleman for the Sporting News in 2004:
“Rod Coleman is to the Falcons what Warren Sapp was to the Bucs in that he can be a disruptive guy who can play the run on the way to the quarterback. He’s probably not as athletic as Sapp, but he’s got great power and great strength.”
Sensing a pattern?
Warren Sapp, the seven-time Pro Bowler who spent nine seasons with the Buccaneers and another four in Oakland, retired after the 2007 campaign but his name is still a constant part of the NFL discussion, and not because he is now flinging around opinions for the NFL Network the way he used to do with offensive linemen. Sapp changed the game, redefined a position, rejuvenated a franchise and made his own name a lasting part of the NFL lexicon.
That, dear voters, is a Hall of Famer.
On Saturday, the 46 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee will meet at the New Orleans Super Bowl site to determine the Class of 2013. They will choose up to five of the 15 modern-era finalists for induction. Sapp is one of four players among that group of 15 who are in their first year of Hall eligibility.
The voters shouldn’t make Sapp wait for his bronze bust.
To be sure, the ballot is loaded this year. All four first-year-eligibles are probably destined for Canton at some point. Sapp is joined on that list by offensive linemen Larry Allen and Jonathan Ogden and defensive end Michael Strahan, and that incredible quartet must also share space with such returning candidates as Bill Parcells, Art Modell, Charles Haley and Cris Carter. The doors to Canton may not be wide enough this year to allow entry for all the deserving candidates.
Sapp, however, should walk through them and join Lee Roy Selmon as the only two players in the Hall who spent the majority of their careers as Buccaneers. How fitting that would be. Selmon was inducted in the summer of 1995; a week later, Sapp played in his first NFL game to begin the ’95 preseason.
The former University of Miami standout had been drafted by the Buccaneers four months earlier, with the 12th overall pick. In his second season, Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin arrived with their Cover Two defense and Sapp found his ticket to stardom.
It was in 1996 that Sapp began to change how the defensive tackle position was viewed, at least the “three-technique” version of that position. Sapp didn’t just clog the middle while the ends chased the quarterback; he collapsed the line, or simply shot through it, providing unceasing pressure up the middle and, as the three-technique style was often described at the time, he played the run on the way to the quarterback.
After a modest three-sack season as a rookie under Sam Wyche, Sapp exploded with nine QB takedowns in 1996 and then topped double digits in three of the next four seasons. That was virtually unheard of from the defensive tackle position at the time, and it was perhaps the key reason the Buccaneers began a run of defensive success that is almost unmatched in NFL history. After improving from 27th in 1995 to 11th in ’96, Tampa Bay’s defense would finish in the top nine in each of Sapp’s last seven seasons with the club, including five top-five rankings.
That success was also attributable to such superb teammates as Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Ronde Barber, all of whom could one day join Sapp in the Hall of Fame. It’s fair to wonder, however, if the whole unit could have been as consistently stifling if Sapp wasn’t constantly drawing – and often defeating – double and triple teams. Those defenses were hell on opposing passers, in particular, because the Buccaneers could generate so much pressure using only their front four, and Sapp was the main catalyst.
It is that ripple effect that he had on an entire defense that has, in the years since, caused so many teams to look for “the next Warren Sapp.” He wasn’t just a great player; he was an icon, a mold, a wholly unique presence in the league whose impact has been felt long beyond his final game. A Hall of Fame without such a figure in it would simply not complete; it shouldn’t even spend one extra year in such incomplete fashion.
Oh, the numbers are there, too. Sapp finished his career with 96.5 sacks, second all-time to Hall of Famer John Randle (Class of 2010) among interior defensive linemen. His 16.5 sacks in 2000, a Buccaneer franchise record, are the third most in a single season by a DT. He hit double digits in a season four different times; only Randle did it more among tackles, with seven. To round out his stats, Sapp also recorded 19 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries and four interceptions. He played in 198 games, starting 188.
Those efforts resulted in a room full of awards. He was named to the Pro Bowl seven times. He was a first-team Associated Press All-Pro four times, a more exclusive honor than the all-star game, and a second-team choice in two other seasons. He was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1999 after leading the Buccaneers to the NFC Championship Game on a team with the league’s 28th-ranked offense. No defensive tackle has won that award since. He is a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s…and the 2000s. That certainly speaks to the sustained impact of his career.
And, of course, Sapp has a Super Bowl ring. If one subscribes to the notion that championships are as important a part of judging a player’s career as individual honors, you can consider Warren Sapp’s resume complete. Would the Buccaneers have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2002 season had they not drafted Sapp in 1995? It’s difficult to imagine they would.
Put it all together and you have a career that rivals some of the best in league history. There are, in fact, only six players all-time who have won a Super Bowl, won a Defensive Player of the Year award and been selected to seven straight Pro Bowls. Four of the other five are already enshrined in Canton: Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene and Jack Lambert. The fifth is Brooks, who is almost surely on his way there, too. All six are unquestioned superstars and among the best ever to play the game.
That is the definition of a Hall of Famer. Hopefully, the voters will see it that way on Saturday afternoon.