Defensive tackle Warren Sapp of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers has only been in Japan for a day but already likes what he sees.
“The sushi here is a lot better than in the States,” Sapp, the centerpiece of the NFL’s best defense last season, told reporters Thursday ahead of Saturday’s American Bowl against the AFC East champion New York Jets.
The trip to Japan is part of an effort by the NFL to broaden the appeal of American football in foreign markets. NFL teams have traveled to such places as Osaka; London; Barcelona, Spain; Berlin; Mexico City and Dublin, Ireland in recent years.
Saturday’s game at Tokyo Dome will be the 12th American Bowl played in Japan. Last year the Washington Redskins thrashed the San Francisco 49ers 38-7 at the Osaka Dome in western Japan.
Along with Sapp, who had 7.5 sacks last season, Japanese fans will get to see the top-rated passer in the NFC in Brad Johnson and receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who led the Buccaneers in pass receiving (76 receptions, 1,088 yards).
The Jets, meanwhile, feature last season’s top-rated quarterback in the NFL, Chad Pennington.
The Jets got off to a 1-4 start last season and Pennington took over in Week 4 when veteran Vinny Testaverde went down to injury. With Pennington at the helm, the Jets won seven of their last 10 and went to the playoffs.
For the American Bowl, each team has one Japanese player on the roster. Wide receiver Yoshinobu Imoto will get some work with the Jets while linebacker Shinzo Yamada will be lining up for the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said that Yamada has already proved to be a valuable addition to the team.
“Yamada saved the day yesterday,” said Gruden. “One of our players had to go to the bathroom on the trip in from the airport and there’s no telling what might have happened if Shinzo wasn’t there.” (Yamada gave Martin Gramatica directions to the bathroom).
Both Gruden and New York coach Herman Edwards said they will stick to the basics for Saturday’s game.
Gruden hinted that some members from the best defense in football could move to the other side of the ball in Saturday’s game.
“Warren (Sapp) plays offense, Anthony (McFarland) plays offense and we’ve experimented with Ronde Barber,” added Gruden. “We’re very excited about our offense and the New York Jets will provide a great test for us.”
Edwards said he hopes Imoto will get a chance to show what he can do.
“We have some plays designed,” said Edwards. “But our hardest job will be when our young quarterback comes into the game to execute those plays against the best defense in football. Hopefully Tampa Bay will relax and let Imoto catch a few balls.”
While organizers have not released official ticket sales figures for the exhibition game, they say they expect at least 35,000 people.
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