Why 2003 will be the swan song for Warren Sapp
There is little doubt that when you come to do a poll of the best players in franchise history, a certain defensive tackle who wears No.99 on his back will be one of the first names you consider. And if you compile a list of the biggest personalities in the game, the same name appears in lights there too. Love him or hate him, Warren Sapp is and has been the heart and soul of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the past eight seasons. But not for much longer.

Warren will be 31 at the end of the 2003 season and will have completed nine seasons playing one of the most demanding positions in the game. Routinely double-teamed, Sapp is one player that opposing offensive co-ordinators always take into account when defining a playbook against the Buccaneers and he hasn't made his six trips to the Pro Bowl for his good looks. And you don't win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year Award as he did in 1999 for merely producing a few good soundbites after each game either.

But Warren's multi-million dollar contract is up at the end of 2003, the six-year deal he signed back in 1998 when he was entering his prime and one of the best extensions that the Buccaneers have ever made. $36 million has found its way into his account, the final $6.6 million of which will be the 2003 portion of the deal.

So do you sign him to another contract, one that would have to be front-loaded in terms of bonuses and would therefore not be cap-friendly? The answer from this camp is no. It will not be a popular decision, but this is a business and sometimes you have to draw a line between sentiment and business. Thanks for the memories but it's not like we're going to leave you penniless on the street.

Warren Sapp is not stupid. He knows the situation and he is beginning to test the waters for what might be out there in 2004 and beyond, even if it's going to be somewhere apart from Tampa Bay. And he's not bitter towards the Bucs yet either which has to be to his credit. "The only thing they've allowed me to do in the last five years is collect almost $30 million," he said recently. "I ain't hurtin'. I'd be a fool to sit up here and rant and rave: 'They won't pay me.' They've already paid me. And if they say I'm no longer the commodity, we'll deal with it then."

Placing a franchise tag on him for 2004 is not going to happen because the terms of that agreement would mean he would have to receive a contract equal to 120% of his 2003 salary which would be nearly $8 million. No team can afford that under current salary cap rules so that option is a non-starter from the outset.

But you can bet that some team out there in the NFL will give Warren something like $20M over four years to continue his career. If the Cardinals can give Emmitt Smith a two-year contract when he's more washed up than flotsam and jetsam on a beach, then Sapp is still going to banking football cheques for sometime to come. But for Buccaneer fans, it will be a strange sight to see this inspirational team leader wearing other colours. So enjoy 2003 and Warren in the Buc colours for what is sure to be the last time.

Paul Stewart, June 2003