MIAMI -- Depending on point of view, Shannon Sharpe either has elevated trash talk to art form, or taken it right down the gutter.
He is either court jester (if you're on his side), or team agitator (if you're not).
There is no middle ground, no misunderstanding, with the Denver Broncos' tight end. You either appreciate his piercing humor or resent his haughty arrogance.
Come Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will have to withstand his hyperbole and decide for themselves.
"I'm like this," Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith said yesterday. "If you can do it, if you can back it up, say it. He believes in his skills. He's not going to take anything back, and I'm not either."
Sharpe is the X-factor in Super Bowl XXXIII. No one in the NFL is quicker -- or better -- with a needle.
"I consider myself the best in the game," he said. "As Terrell Davis is the best player in the game, I'm the best trash talker in the game. We have two of the best on our football team at what we do."
The Kansas City Chiefs can attest to that. On Nov. 16, in a Monday night debacle, Sharpe's harangue so unnerved the Chiefs' Derrick Thomas that Thomas picked up three personal foul penalties before he could be pulled from the game.
In the aftermath of Denver's 30-7 wipeout, Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer suspended Thomas for a week, cut linebacker Wayne Simmons and possibly lost his team. This month, in the ultimate spinoff, Schottenheimer resigned.
Sharpe seemed delighted.
"I got a guy suspended, I got a guy cut, a coach resigned, and another thought about resigning," he said. "I'm pretty good. I ought to go in politics."
It was after that game that Sharpe called Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino "a loser," sent word for Johnson to evacuate his office at Pro Player Stadium "because we're going to need it to break down film," and chided the Dolphins with this rhetorical question: "How does it feel to have the Super Bowl at your house, and you're not invited?"
Not everything Sharpe does is designed to incite a riot, though. After the Broncos beat the New York Jets, 23-10, in the AFC championship game, he galloped through Denver's locker room wearing a white foam Bronco horsehead. His teammates appreciate such unbridled humor.
"Shannon's a great guy," said wide receiver Ed McCaffrey. "He makes football fun for me. He lightens up the mood. He's got a great personality and he's very charismatic. He takes a lot of stress out of the game."
When the Broncos upset the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII last year, Sharpe gave his Super Bowl ring to his brother Sterling Sharpe, a former Packers wide receiver whose career was cut short by a neck injury.
For all his notoriety as an instigator, Sharpe has had a remarkable NFL career since being selected in the seventh round of the 1990 draft out of Division II Savannah (Ga.) State. He has been named to seven straight Pro Bowls, ranks second in franchise history in career catches (529) and yards (6,759), and is tied for first with Haven Moses and Lionel Taylor for most touchdown catches (44) by a Bronco.
Sharpe isn't shy when asked where he ranks among the all-time great tight ends.
"I would like to think I'm one of the best," he said. "If you look at Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow, none of those guys ever played in a Super Bowl. Here I am in my second one. I'll take my numbers for nine years and put them up there with anybody."
He is in a league of his own when it comes to put-downs. Growing up in Glenville, Ga., he says he disliked the Falcons "because they always lost."
"If you were in Fulton County and had a pair of cleats on, they'd put you in the game, they were so bad," he said.
He'll take a running battle with Atlanta safety Eugene Robinson into Sunday's game.
"I know we've both got big mouths," Robinson said. "I think he's got me there."
Countered Sharpe: "For the 11 years he was in Seattle, we were beating his eyes out. He was with Green Bay last year and we beat him. He can't out-talk me, can't cover me. He's from Colgate, but that doesn't mean anything. I don't have a Harvard degree, but I can count to 1 million."
Sharpe is a media favorite here because he never stops at a declarative sentence when there's a whole unedited speech waiting to be delivered. On the field, he says, he never loses the war of words.
"I normally don't say anything until someone starts talking to me," Sharpe said. "[But] I'm always going to have the last word. I can assure you of that."
Denver Broncos (16-2) vs. Atlanta Falcons (16-2)
Site: Pro Player Stadium, Miami
When: Sunday, 6: 18 p.m. TV/Radio: Chs. 45, 5/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Broncos by 7 1/2
Pub Date: 1/27/99