Next Question: What Happens To No. 99?
Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune, published 21 December 2003

Timeout. Just 23 seconds remained, and the Falcons were in victory formation. Take a knee, run off the field. There was nothing the Bucs could do to reverse the 30-28 score that would end their playoff chances on this frosty Saturday afternoon. But as Michael Vick touched the ground, Warren Sapp's hands came together and signaled ``T'' to stop the clock. Aw, geez.

Everyone in the stadium was headed for the exits and home, and here was Sapp making the agony last longer. Why, in the name of sanity, would he do that? As we pondered that, Vick took a knee again and Sapp once more called for time. That's when it seemed to make at least a little sense. If this was, as many suspect, his last moments at Ray-Jay as a Buc, he seemed determined to make it last as long as possible. ``Next question,'' he said with a shrug a few minutes later at his corner locker in the Bucs' dressing room, when someone asked if it was, indeed, the end.

But this is the next question for Warren Sapp, and will be until his future with the Bucs is settled. The Bucs have to decide whether they can afford to bring him back. Sapp has to decide if it's worth returning on the Bucs' terms, which surely will be less than what he can make somewhere else. Questions, but no answers. ``I have to admit that before the introductions [Saturday], I thought about that a little bit,'' safety John Lynch said. ``I tried not to think about it and stay focused on the game, live in the moment and whatnot, but it was there.''

Sure it was. It was impossible to look at No. 99 on this day and not think of legacies. It'll depend who's telling the story. Sapp has been alternately delightful and boorish during his nine seasons with the Bucs. He has spoken his mind, or he has not spoken at all. He has been both a lightning rod and a recluse. A showman, a blowhard, and someone who gave juice to a once-lifeless franchise. He makes you laugh. He makes you furious. He makes you wonder why he has to be the way he is too often. He is intelligent, but does puzzling things. He's a big reason so many love the Bucs. And hate them. And why they won a championship.

He has been the best defensive player in the National Football League, and he has been something less. Used to be you expected to see Sapp get his sacks, but now they're more of an event. He's going to the Pro Bowl again, but it's questionable whether the Bucs have the salary room to keep him in Tampa - especially when Booger McFarland can slide into Sapp's position. Look at this game. Three tackles, two assists, no sacks.

But as always with Sapp, it's about more than just numbers. It's still about winning, no matter the score, and not everyone on this team could say that this season. It's about calling timeouts when all that's left is a one-in-a-million chance Vick might fumble the snap and give the Bucs a final breath. Along with Lynch, Derrick Brooks, Mike Alstott and the core, Sapp helped lift the Bucs to the mountaintop - and a city went along for the ride. ``Make no mistake, Warren Sapp has been a great Buccaneer - not good, great. He was part of a core of guys who truly changed the mentality of a town and a football team. There's nothing else you can say about that,'' former Bucs and current Falcons general manager Rich McKay said afterward. ``If it turns out he's not a Buc, his legacy will be a great one in Tampa. That remains to be seen. I wouldn't necessarily bet against that. We'll just have to wait and see.''

Sapp had finished with his postgame interviews and was packing to leave. Lynch looked across the locker room at No. 99's neighborhood - first locker on the left as you come through the door - and talked about what was, what is, and what might yet be. ``He has been as critical as anyone to getting us out of the doldrums to a championship level,'' Lynch said. ``I love the guy. I played with him a long time and respect him. He's still a teammate of mine and he's still a Buccaneer, and until we're told otherwise that's the case.''

This will be a winter of tough decisions for this team - more than just about any other year. But of all the things that have to be done, none will be tougher than deciding what to do about No. 99. You sense Sapp is prepared to leave, but wants to stay. You sense Jon Gruden wants him back but is prepared to move on. You know the reality of the salary cap and the NFL, but then you see Sapp calling for time. It might seem like a futile gesture, but maybe not. Why do it? Why stay when it might be time to go? Next question.