For Dilfer, future is now

Trent Dilfer: Playoff success may be only guarantee to QB's return as Ravens' starter.

January 07, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Trent Dilfer's present is clear-cut, his future clouded. The Ravens quarterback is two wins away from becoming a Super Bowl quarterback. He is one loss away from uncertainty.

The Ravens insist their confidence remains with Dilfer, but there is continued speculation that Dilfer won't be re-signed and Washington Redskins free-agent quarterback Brad Johnson will be the Ravens' starter next season.

Although Dilfer won't make the decision, he has the platform to alter it.

In today's AFC divisional playoff game, Dilfer will be in the national spotlight and under the team's microscope. With the Tennessee Titans dedicated to stopping the run, Dilfer's big-play ability could prove to be the difference for victory as well as job security.

This postseason run may determine whether Dilfer exits after a one-year cameo or receives a return engagement.

"I don't think about it. I can't control it," Dilfer said. "All I can do is win football games. We've been able to accomplish something pretty neat on the run. There was no preparation for this. There's still so much improvement by myself, my relationship with my receivers. The sky's the limit to me, but I can't control how things will turn out.

"There's nobody here or anybody around that when I got the job thought it would end up to this point. I'll just rest on that."

The Ravens have tiptoed around the issue of Dilfer's future. He signed a one-year, $1 million contract and would become an unrestricted free agent in March.

"I understand the interest but it serves no purpose for Trent, me or the organization in any way shape or form to speculate as to what is going to happen," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

Dilfer's season has been equally as complicated.

His statistics are mediocre. His record is near perfect.

He finished as the league's 20th-rated quarterback with an interception percentage trailing only San Diego's Ryan Leaf in the AFC. But it's difficult to argue with a quarterback who hasn't lost in two months.

Only stat that matters

Dilfer is 8-1 as the Ravens' starter, with eight consecutive victories, doubling the 5-year-old franchise's previous longest winning streak. Success, though, hasn't eased the 28-year-old quarterback's feelings of continually being a magnet for criticism by fans, the media and the rest of the league.

"People don't want to see a quarterback play the position the way I play it these days," Dilfer said. "Yet they want the eight wins. Yet they want to be here [in the playoffs]. But they have a better way of doing it. The only thing I'll say is that there wasn't a better way of doing it."

With Dilfer, the West Coast offense has gone south. It's grind-it-out football at its ugliest.

That's beautiful to Dilfer. He has conformed to the ball-control style, quietly taking a backseat to the NFL's fifth-best rushing attack.

In seven of Dilfer's past eight starts, the Ravens have dominated time of possession. He has done his part to keep drives alive, averaging 12.1 yards per completion on third down.

"Everybody talks about statistics aren't the important thing, it's just about winning and losing," Billick said. "Then they turn around and throw the statistics down your throat, that you're not this, that or the other. All he has done for the most part is win."

Thinking too much?

Has Dilfer become too conservative?

In his past three games, he is 32-for-61 (52 percent) while averaging only passing 99 yards a game. He hasn't thrown an interception in 34 attempts, but he has only eight passes covering more than 10 yards the past three weeks.

"I'm not trying to make excuses for him," Billick said. "I'm not trying to set a stage that says he's lighting the world up and you're all wrong. Is he going to have to make some of those throws to win the game Sunday? Yeah, he is. Yet at the same time, he knows what a turnover will do. That's the dilemma of playing that position."

A tireless worker, Dilfer is a perfectionist when it comes to game preparation and attention to detail. His teammates joke that Dilfer spends so much time reviewing film at the complex that his wife doesn't recognize him anymore.

While admirable, that approach can backfire at times.

"I think the biggest thing when Trent gets into trouble is he starts thinking too much," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "He starts thinking that he sees something that really is not there. I tell him just let his ability go and not think."

Sharpe isn't alone on this theory.

"His nature is to have everything in his head," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "He wants to analyze every possible scenario and every play. There are some plays that he doesn't need to do that. I think that most guys who have his intensity and preparation, they think no matter what a defense does they can always find a place to go with the ball. It doesn't work that way. Defenses are too good and too complex."

The ex-Buc stops here

For Dilfer, a trip to the Super Bowl in Tampa would be part celebration and redemption.

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