No talks with Bucs, and Sapp won't sit around

Updated: March 9, 2004, 12:49 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should consider themselves forewarned. Warren Sapp is about to go on the offensive.

The veteran defensive tackle has been frustrated by the Bucs' ongoing inactivity one week into the free-agency signing period, and he's concerned about the widespread perception that he would not leave Florida to continue his NFL career.

Nothing against the Bucs, because he loves that team, but ... the reality is that the chances Warren will be back [with the Bucs] are diminishing.
Drew Rosenhaus, Sapp's agent

In fact, Sapp is keeping an open mind about where he plays in 2004 and beyond and is prepared to be courted. Agent Drew Rosenhaus said Tuesday that there are no understandings -- not even implicitly -- with Bucs officials about Sapp returning to the only team for which he's played his nine NFL seasons.

"We've had no negotiations with the Bucs at all," Rosenhaus said. "Zero. We haven't even gotten a sense from them of where things stand. Other than casual discussions at the Pro Bowl and the combine, where they said they want him back, there's been nothing. I mean, not even an offer, OK?

"I spent more time negotiating with them on the possibility of Nate Webster going back to Tampa Bay than I have on Warren, because at least they actually made me an offer on Nate."

It isn't as if other franchises haven't shown interest in Sapp; rather, there's a feeling that teams don't want to waste their time if he is committed to re-signing with Tampa Bay. Neither do other teams want to be the stalking horse for Sapp, negotiating contract numbers with he and Rosenhaus, then watching them shop the deals to the Bucs as leverage.

Meanwhile, backup linebacker Webster left the Bucs last week to sign a five-year, $11.3 million contract with the Cincinnati Bengals. For the four-year veteran, who's projected to be the Bengals' new starting middle linebacker, leaving Tampa Bay was essentially a "no brainer" given the money and the opportunity.

For Sapp, leaving the Bucs would likely be more difficult. He's fashioned a Hall of Fame career in Tampa and was integral to the turnaround of one of the NFL's worst franchises, but he is preparing for such an end game.

Rosenhaus reiterated several times Tuesday that he will soon step up negotiations for Sapp and begin arranging visits to other teams. Provided, of course, the franchises which have already demonstrated interest move beyond their phobias of being used to help Sapp get a better deal with the Bucs.

"I can't emphasize enough to other teams," Rosenhaus said, "that Warren should just be treated like every other free agent. There's no mystery, no secret deals in place, and he is ready to move on and look at the options. He wanted the opportunity to return to Tampa but, the way things stand now, I don't think the odds of that are very good."

The cynics might suggest that the always-proactive Rosenhaus is simply on the stump and attempting to stir interest in his client in a slow market. But his suspicions and those of Sapp, that other teams are delaying pursuing him until they are convinced he won't return to the Bucs, are well-founded.

Even at the combine in Indianapolis three weeks ago, Colts coach Tony Dungy said that Sapp would likely go back to the team that chose him in the first round of the 1995 draft, and such sentiment has been echoed in his discussions with general managers and personnel directors around the league. But while there has been plenty of lip service paid by Bucs officials to wanting Sapp back -- and Sapp's relationship with coach Jon Gruden remains strong -- there has been no indication that the team is ready to hold substantive talks about his future.

In fact, only minutes after the start of the free agency period, Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who had flown to the West Coast for this express purpose, huddled with unrestricted veteran Darrell Russell about signing with Tampa. The intimations were that Russell might be Sapp's replacement.

Increasingly, Rosenhaus said, it looks as if the Bucs had better start planning how they'll replace his client.

The consensus is that Sapp, at 31, is no longer a dominant force for long stretches. But he still ranks among the top defensive tackles in the game, can still be disruptive, and can have his bags packed quickly.

"Nothing against the Bucs, because he loves that team, but it's time to start considering the reality of the situation," Rosenhaus said. "And the reality is that the chances Warren will be back [with the Bucs] are diminishing."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.