Sapp was close to deal with Bengals

Updated: March 22, 2004, 10:48 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

He served as the cornerstone for the reconstruction of one miserable NFL franchise and now, nearly a decade later, Warren Sapp will try to help re-establish the halcyon days of a once-proud team that suddenly fell into disrepair last season.

Sapp, a seven-time Pro Bowl performer during his nine-year tenure with Tampa Bay, became an unrestricted free agent this spring. In a deal that would have been considered unthinkable less than 24 hours before it was consummated, he reached contract agreement with the Oakland Raiders on Saturday evening.

 Warren Sapp
Sapp

He passed a team physical and will be introduced as the newest member of the Silver and Black on Monday.

The seven-year contract, completed after very long Friday night and Saturday bargaining sessions by phone, will pay Sapp $36.6 million. About $7 million of that will come in the form of guaranteed bonuses.

League sources said that the contract is not severely back loaded and will pay Sapp more than $14 million in its first three years and in excess of $19 million the first four years. For the front part of the contract, such a distribution is superior to some of the deals signed by defensive tackles earlier in free agency.

Oakland entered into the bidding for Sapp late Friday, phoning agent Drew Rosenhaus only after ESPN.com reported that the Cincinnati Bengals were close to a deal with the defensive tackle on a four-year contract that would have paid him more than $16 million. Operating with their trademark stealth, Raiders executives quickly assessed the financial viability of adding Sapp and determined it was reasonable to make an 11th-hour pitch for him.

Just as important for the Raiders' coaches was the feeling that Sapp would be a good fit in their defense. Sapp will be paired with another free agent acquisition, nose tackle Ted Washington, and so will be able to continue playing the "three technique" or "under" position so familiar to him. Since the mammoth Washington figures to draw a lot of double-team blocking, Sapp, who will be aligned in the center-guard gap, ought to have plenty of room to maneuver.

Getting Sapp, even in the twilight of an often brilliant career, is a move characteristic of the Raiders, even coming off a disastrous 2003 season that left many critics insisting that it is time for the franchise to begin rebuilding with younger players.

Part of the sales pitch to Sapp and Rosenhaus, though, was the manner in which Davis has always taken care of veteran players, on and off the field. And Sapp was intrigued by likely being able to finish his career with one of the NFL's most recognizable franchises.

There is also a bit of gamesmanship, not surprisingly, in the fact the Raiders staged an all-out yet surreptitious whirlwind courtship. Remember, Sapp played his entire career with Tampa Bay, the team to which coach Jon Gruden defected after leading the Raiders to a berth in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Delayed revenge was not the prime reason the Raiders jumped into the Sapp Derby, but it would be na´ve to believe it didn't play at least a minor part in Oakland's going after him so late in the process.

There is little doubt that Bengals officials, who were confident when they went to bed on Friday night that they would close a deal by Saturday afternoon, will be stung by the unexpected reversal. Cincinnati executives probably will feel used by Sapp and Rosenhaus, who spent long hours Friday night negotiating with the Bengals.

League sources said both sides bargained in good faith and with the knowledge that there could be another team or two still chasing Sapp and attempting to steal him from the clutches of Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis.

It became somewhat apparent, after the Bengals made a final offer and then did not hear from Rosenhaus for a few hours, that their worst fears might be realized. Sources close to Sapp maintained, though, he was prepared to join the Bengals until the Raiders entered the picture and came out of the chute with a first offer that captured his attention.

Arguably the best and also best-known player remaining in the unrestricted free agent pool, Sapp tired about a week ago of waiting for the Bucs to send some sort of signal they wanted him back in 2004, and instead went on the offensive. He instructed Rosenhaus to follow up on inquiries with other clubs and, at the same time, he admitted publicly his time with the Bucs might have come to a close.

Landing a player of Sapp's profile, even if his game has declined a bit the past couple seasons, would have been a huge acquisition for the Bengals. Not only would he have helped anchor the interior of a line that slumped badly against the run in the second half of the 2003 season, but Sapp, 31, also would have been a presence in the locker room, and provided an attitude and swagger the Bengals have rarely displayed.

When he arrived in Tampa as a first-round draft choice in 1995, the Bucs were in the midst of a string of 12 consecutive seasons with double-digit defeats. But by Sapp's third season with the franchise, Tampa Bay was in the playoffs, and that began a run of five straight postseason appearances.

Obviously, he hopes to return the Raiders to prominence before his career ends.

On his Web site, Sapp had listed six franchises with which he would consider continuing his career. He never cited Oakland as a potential new home. But it had been clear for the past week that Cincinnati was more aggressive than other suitors. In end, though, the Bengals could not finish off a deal for which their long-suffering fans were clamoring.

It is believed that there were also relatively serious discussions with the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs, but neither team was in the same financial bracket as the Raiders' offer. As a precursor to his departure, Sapp on Saturday posted on his Web site a picture of a tombstone. Inscribed on the tombstone was a Buccaneers logo and the words: "1995-2003. Thanks."

There were no substantive discussions during the free agency period between top Bucs officials and representatives for Sapp, and it appeared early in the week that both sides were prepared to move on.

Sapp is coming off a 2003 season in which he totaled 58 tackles and five sacks. The sacks were the fewest since his rookie season in 1995. While many observers insist Sapp is not the dominant force of just a few years ago, the former University of Miami star can still take over a game for stretches. And given the lack of interest by a Bucs team he helped to build into a contender, it is a good bet the prideful Sapp will feel that he has something to prove to Tampa Bay officials and other skeptics as well.

The departure of Sapp, along with the release of strong safety John Lynch on Wednesday, marks the end of an era for the Bucs.

The 12th overall player chosen in the '95 draft, Sapp has 524 career tackles along with 77 sacks. He has also forced 16 fumbles, had eight recoveries and deflected 20 passes. Sapp has appeared in 140 games and started in 130 of them.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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