MAXWELL: Johnson, Sapp are no big loss for the Bucs 

3/24/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

If you feel the temperature cooling off in the Tampa Bay area, one reason might be that the heat from all the trash-talking of former Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp and receiver Keyshawn Johnson has blown westward. Sapp has signed a seven-year, $36-million deal with the Oakland Raiders, and Johnson has finalized a $20-million, four-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys, in addition to a $4-million signing bonus.

As a fan who follows the game closely, I believe that Sapp and Johnson became more distractions than assets to the team. In terms of raw talent and athleticism, the Bucs should have repeated in the Super Bowl. But because of on-the-field and off-the-field foolishness, this dynamic duo greatly contributed to the loss of that vital winning chemistry that makes Super Bowl champions. (If you do not believe me, review the season tapes of the Super Bowl Bucs and those of the Super Bowl Carolina Panthers. You will sense that winning chemistry.)

Always the showman and egoist, Sapp did not perform as a franchise-making player last season. His play started to deteriorate against the Washington Redskins, as he did his usual bunny hop onto the field, when he seemed to deliberately shoulder a game official. He was fined $50,000 for the bump and was threatened with suspension for at least a game if he continued to act the fool. The league also cautioned him about using excessively abusive language toward game officials.

Instead of taking responsibility for his behavior, Sapp played the race card, accusing the NFL of being the “slave master.” Then, he went on to spark individual feuds between himself and other players, thus turning team play on its head.

Sapp, the seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro, became just another showboater. He ended the season with only five sacks, down from 16{ in 2000. He appeared to have lost what insiders referred to as his “focused,” “relentless,” “dominant” and “passionate” rush and pursuit.

Now with the Raider Nation under tough-guy Al Davis, Sapp should be right at home, and he should regain his Pro Bowl ferocity.

Curious, I logged onto the Raider Image, the official online store of the Raiders, to see if Sapp-gear was available. You bet it is. Already, fans can buy a Sapp jersey. The ad reads: “Get Sacked with Sapp. Customize a 99 Sapp authentic jersey today! Order now to get yours in time for the season. Free . . . shipping on orders of $99 or more!”

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Sapp, a Florida native who had never played for a team outside the Sunshine State, fell in love with the Raiders in 1998, when the Bucs and Raiders butted skulls during a pre-season game on Oakland’s home turf, when Oakland fans made a 6-foot Sapp effigy and pounded it against a wall.

The violence and the thug imagery excited Sapp, and he is said to have cherished that experience, which is a major reason that he jumped at the opportunity to play on the left coast. “The big bad silver and black and Warren Sapp coming together _ that’s got to be a match made in heaven,” Sapp told the Union-Tribune.

About playing for Davis, the man in black, Sapp said, “I’ve always admired him from afar. His style speaks for himself. He’s as smooth as all outdoors.”

Now, to Johnson, who has reunited with Bill Parcells, his coach with the New York Jets. Like Sapp, Johnson was forever flapping his lips in Tampa. He was not the sure-hands, two-time Pro Bowl threat that had made him a feared receiver. From all I have heard and read, Johnson became a bellyaching problem in the locker room.

Most observers say that Johnson and Bucs coach Jon Gruden had bad blood. After learning in November that Gruden was deactivating him, Johnson said, “Good. That’s what I thought when I got the phone call from my agent. I was going to get out of this hole and get the weight off my back. People will say I’m this and I’m that for about five months, then I’ll go to a team and it’ll be over with.”

Again like Sapp, Johnson will not take responsibility for his problems. He blames Gruden for his inept performance, while painting himself as a misunderstood team player. “In my career, I’ve always been a guy that’s sacrificed for what everybody else wanted to do,” he said during a televised press conference. “Now it’s time for me to take my game to the next level, and I know that my game will go to the next level because you’re around people that want me to have success.”

I do not doubt that Sapp and Johnson are better off with their new teams. I’m just glad they no longer play for the Bucs.