Tony Dungy remembers passing through the aluminum bleacher seats of Lambeau Field on a December afternoon five years ago, catching the crackle of dissatisfaction from the Green Bay Packers faithful.
Back then, Dungy was a promising defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings and Brett Favre a young, struggling quarterback for the Packers.
"After the game, going down the stands, I heard stuff like 'We'll never win with Favre. The guy's too antsy. He always does dumb things,' " Dungy said. "Two years later, he's the quarterback of the year."
It is a story that Dungy, now head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, likes to tell -- especially to his relatively young, still-struggling quarterback. When the Bucs visit Green Bay on Sunday, Trent Dilfer will get yet another glimpse of the quarterback he wants to be when he grows up.
"I love Brett," Dilfer, 26, was saying before the season began. "The things he does are great. The thing I love: He has that championship ring. And he almost got another. Brett is obsessed, the same way I am, about winning. He'd be great in this system.
"Be like Brett? I want to win the Super Bowl. But we're different quarterbacks. I can't make some of the throws Brett can make."
That's where the Favre-Dilfer analogy starts to break down, with the passing game. That's where Dilfer's critics, of whom there are many, have a field day.
But then, who can make some of the throws Favre has made in his three-year MVP, two-year Super Bowl run?
The real issue: Can the Bucs get to some future Super Bowl with Dilfer at quarterback?
That's the question these days in Tampa, where Dungy has put some critical pieces in place for just such a run. It's a question that was put to Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren in a news conference earlier this week. Holmgren's lukewarm answer spokes volumes about the doubt that surrounds Dilfer.
"That's a good question," Holmgren said. "You can probably ask that question about every team. Trent has improved each year, in my opinion. In their style of offense, the quarterback is not asked to do the same things the quarterback for our team is asked to do. We're a little more wild in what we ask him to do.
"Is Trent good enough to get them to the Super Bowl? I think we have a pretty good shot ourselves. Obviously, the Bucs feel he's good enough."
Dilfer wasn't good enough a year ago, when the Packers beat the Bucs three times, including the playoffs. His performance in those games was uneven, and aside from a 52-yard completion in the playoff game, unspectacular. He completed 40.2 percent of his passes, averaged just 3.99 yards per pass attempt, and the Bucs got outscored, 59-29. (Favre completed 66.3 percent, averaged 7.18 yards per pass and threw for five touchdowns.)
It was not all Dilfer's fault, of course. Absent a big-play receiving threat, the Bucs' passing game was noticeably limp in 1997. The Bucs completed just six of 33 passes over 30 yards during the season, and for the third straight year, the team's leading receiver was not a wide-out.
In the off-season, the Bucs signed expensive free-agent wide receiver Bert Emanuel, drafted big-play receiver Jacquez Green and watched expectations soar.
"We have to throw the ball more productively," Dungy said. "We've got to be able, when the other team sneaks eight men up [to the line of scrimmage], to hit touchdowns against man coverage. I think we will be able to do that. We will get those critical shots, and we've got to execute that particular play."
One week into the season, though, the Bucs are revising plans. Emanuel severely sprained his left ankle after making his seventh catch in the opener, and is out for at least a month. Dilfer took a helmet on his left thigh to aggravate a preseason injury, and said he also slightly separated a shoulder.
Dilfer, whose string of 49 consecutive regular-season starts is second to Favre's 94, will carry the additional weight of Tampa Bay's abysmal 31-7 loss to Minnesota. With seven consecutive road games counting preseason, before opening their new stadium, this is no way to start a year of great expectation.
As if all that wasn't enough, Dilfer's got to look across the field Sunday and see the player he'd like to be. The sixth pick in the 1994 draft out of Fresno State, Dilfer's first three seasons were painful. Showing a lack of leadership and confidence, he threw ++ 17 touchdown passes and 43 interceptions.
But he improved greatly last season with a club-record 21 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions. Possessed of a strong but often inaccurate arm, Dilfer has polished his game, calmed his nerves and, for the time being, quieted the critics.
"I'd always been too concerned with being somebody else, until I realized the only pressure I had was to be the best I could be," he said.
"There always will be doubt. But I realized in the situation I'm in, I need to stay patient. I've got a great coach and a lot of fine people in my life who continue to pump me up. I've still got a long way to go."
Dungy can only heed the lessons he learned watching Chuck Noll stay patient with Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh, and Bill Walsh handling Joe Montana in San Francisco.
"Sooner or later, if you're allowed time, you'll grow into the position," Dungy said. "Very few quarterbacks are successful overnight. Our job is to put talent around him."
Pub Date: 9/11/98