Warren Sapp, the cornerstone of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense and one of the NFL's more gregarious personalities, today was named the league's defensive player of the year by the Associated Press.

The award came 20 years after Buccaneers Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon won the honor. In 1979, the Bucs had the NFL's top-ranked defense and advanced to the NFC championship game before losing to the Los Angeles Rams. The Bucs would return to the NFC title game for the first time should they defeat the Washington Redskins here Saturday.

"Just being mentioned in the same breath as Lee Roy Selmon is a tremendous honor," said Sapp, the defensive tackle who finished the regular season with 12 1/2 sacks, just one-half sack shy of Selmon's team record. "My teammates made it a lot easier for me to enjoy my job."

Sapp enjoyed a breakthrough season in 1997, recording 10 1/2 sacks and leading the Bucs to the NFC semifinals against the Green Bay Packers, where he sacked Brett Favre three times. But he came to training camp the following summer overweight and finished the '98 season with just seven sacks.

"It was painful to watch myself on film each week," says Sapp, 27. "I saw a guy who wasn't able to play an entire game at a high, full-speed, full-tilt level that he always had. I had to do something about it."

Sapp shed 40 pounds last summer through an intense conditioning program that included 90 minutes of swimming each day in his backyard pool. This season, he finished fifth in the NFL in sacks and was named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl.

Sapp is widely regarded as one of the league's best on-field trash talkers and stands out on a team that generally takes its cue from low-key coach Tony Dungy.

"I think my mouth equals my play," Sapp said. "If you're going to talk it, walk it. I'm going to turn it into a war out there. You can count on it. You come to play me, you're going to put your hard hat on because it's going to be a four-quarter affair. That's the way the great ones played and I want to be remembered as one of those guys."

Hayfield's McDonald Steps In

Backup wide receiver Reidel Anthony aggravated a quadriceps injury during practice today and is doubtful for Saturday. That likely will mean more playing time for rookie Darnell McDonald, a graduate of Hayfield High in Alexandria. Cornerback Donnie Abraham, wide receiver Jacquez Green and defensive tackle Brad Culpepper, who have nursed minor injuries this week, are expected to play. . . .

Shirt Explosion, the company that made "Believe in Stephen" a rallying cry for Redskins fans with a line of T-shirts, is hoping to have similar success here. This week, the manufacturer unveiled a black T-shirt picturing a snarling Sapp that reads, "This is your playoff face. Get it on!" Sapp chose the photograph himself.