Quarterback revival

Trent Dilfer: After six mostly disappointing seasons in Tampa, the Ravens' QB returns having earned a grudging respect for his leadership abilities.

January 21, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The paradox of Trent Dilfer, Super Bowl quarterback, will be poked, probed and otherwise pulled inside out this week.

The man who couldn't win over Tampa football fans during a six-year run will serve as a lightning rod for the Ravens' legions in his old neighborhood.

The player who couldn't win the big game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to win the biggest game of all for Baltimore.

The quarterback who disdained a conservative, run-oriented, no-frills offense in Tampa will bring an offense with exactly the same profile into Raymond James Stadium next Sunday.

Of such strange journeys are Super Bowl story lines made.

"I can't explain this thing," Dilfer said. "I was a backup 13 weeks ago. I've taken one simple approach: Take it day by day, try to get better, try to get to the point where my God-given ability shows, and that's been my ambition.

"All the good things that have come from that, obviously I'm happy for. But also, I'm a little overwhelmed by it."

The Trent Dilfer who returns to Tampa for Super Bowl XXXV against the New York Giants is, if not light-years, at least a Hail Mary pass removed from the Trent Dilfer who struggled so mightily those six seasons in Tampa.

"What I see in Trent is similar to what I saw the last couple years with us," said Bucs general manager Rich McKay. "Being real smart with the football. Trying to use his leadership.

"What I saw in Tampa, what you see with most players, is a maturation process. As Trent grew, one of the things he improved at greatly was his leadership skills. The difference in Trent between his first year and last year with us was leadership."

The sixth pick in the 1994 draft, Dilfer never quite met expectations in Tampa. A holdout stalled his rookie season, and 18 interceptions - against four touchdowns - stunted the second.

But that's not the quarterback Sam Wyche sees these days when he watches tape of his onetime protege. As Bucs coach in 1994, Wyche was the man responsible for drafting Dilfer out of Fresno State.

"On the field, he's a much better decision-maker than he was in Tampa, which is natural because he was a young quarterback then," Wyche said. "Now he's a veteran quarterback. He was always a conscientious student of the game who worked at it, did his homework, studied films. You knew things would fall into place eventually."

Not soon enough for Wyche, though.

In 1995, with a new owner in Malcolm Glazer and a first-round pick at quarterback, Wyche was under pressure to win. In the final game of the season, Wyche yanked Dilfer in the second quarter. There were words on the sideline. Dilfer reportedly made a comment that only one of them would come back the next year.

"He was upset about coming out of the ballgame," Wyche said. "I was more concerned about winning the game. I really don't remember the exact words. I do remember him saying something like that."

Not long after the Bucs lost to the Detroit Lions, 37-10, to finish 7-9, Wyche was fired.

Today, he admits he had his share of clashes with Dilfer, but only in the name of pushing him toward his potential. When Dilfer replaced Tony Banks as the Ravens' starter at midseason, Wyche sent him a short congratulatory note.

"If you're gentle with players that play a tough sport, you generally don't get the best out of the player," Wyche said. "I didn't understand that when I was a player. Trent didn't understand it. Boomer Esiason, Joe Montana, none of them understood it until they could look back on it. You have to toughen guys up with tough love, so to speak."

Tony Dungy followed Wyche with a decidedly conservative offensive approach. Still, Dilfer improved steadily and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1997 when he threw for 21 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. The Bucs made the playoffs, but lost in the second round.

Two years later, it all unraveled. Dungy benched Dilfer in midseason. Even a four-game winning streak when Dilfer was reinstated at the end of the year wasn't enough to persuade the Bucs to pay a $4.5 million bonus to activate a contract extension.

Dilfer mulled over offers to join the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers before accepting the Ravens' one-year, $1 million deal. He replaced Banks in Week 9, lost his first game, then won the next 10, including three in the postseason. While his statistics have been modest, no one can argue with the results.

Now, Dilfer says he won't throw his Super Bowl achievement in Tampa's face.

"There's no future in that," he said. "Because in my heart, I don't sense bitterness. When that thing ended, and I was obviously hurt by it, the No. 1 thing I focused on was healing that part and not carrying any of that with me.

"I can't tell you how many people down there I still have incredible relationships with. ... I got calls [last week] from Rich McKay and [team executive vice president] Joel Glazer, wishing me luck and telling me how happy they were for me. That's a first-class organization in every sense of the word.

"It was best for them, it was best for me. So because of that, there's no `ha, ha, ha, look at me.' It just never came into it."

On the flight back from Oakland, after the Ravens' 16-3 win over the Raiders in the AFC championship game, Dilfer came to appreciate his acceptance on the team. Player after player, he said, offered heartfelt congratulations on his triumph of perseverance.

That night, as he tossed and turned in bed, he came to another realization.

"I just recognized God's sovereignty in all this," Dilfer said. "I recognized why it's worth going through hard times. And I really reflected back on a lot of the times I felt like quitting, or I felt like taking the bad road. ... And I was thankful I always took the high road, always worked through the adversity because it got me to where I am now."

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