Dilfer faces drill on future as Raven

January 26, 2001|By Mike Preston

TAMPA, Fla. - The embarrassing questions keep coming every day.

Hey, Trent, would you play in the XFL?

Hey, Trent, will you be the Ravens' starting quarterback next season?

"Hey, Trent, how many quarterbacks starting in this game do you think have been asked about that?" one reporter followed up.

"Probably not many," replied Dilfer, shaking his head.

Sunday could possibly be Trent Dilfer's last game in a Ravens uniform, going from Super Bowl quarterback to possibly another team or, worse, the unemployment line.

Or maybe worse yet, the XFL.

Dilfer becomes an unrestricted free agent when the game is over, and regardless if the Ravens win or lose, they are in a good position to upgrade their quarterback position with or without Dilfer.

This franchise has one of the league's top enticements, a defense that was the best in the league in 2000, a defense that has a solid enough nucleus returning in 2001 to make another Super Bowl run.

The Ravens can dangle that carrot in front of Dilfer or, let's say, Brad Johnson, another unrestricted free agent, and cut a deal that would make Monty Hall proud.

Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer, come on down.

"I haven't even approached that yet," Dilfer said yesterday about free agency. "We have a full off-season and a full two months to go for that. Once again, if I start thinking about that, it will take away from my preparation for the week."

But the Ravens need to map out some strategy, so here is a decent plan. Cut No. 2 quarterback Tony Banks and sign Dilfer and Johnson and open up the competition for the No. 1 quarterback job. If the Ravens can't sign Johnson, then run the same, conservative ugly offense they have run in the final quarter of this season and let rookie Chris Redman challenge Dilfer for the starting job.

But don't, and I emphasize don't, re-sign Dilfer to a lucrative, long-term contract and give only him the keys to the offense. That would be a big mistake. Huge.

"We've got 14 unrestricted free agents, and I'm not talking about any of them," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, in response to a question about Dilfer, who made $1 million this season.

Well, how about Redman, who is under contract? Could he start for this team next season?

"I think it would be a stretch to say that," said Newsome.

The Ravens need to find a quarterback who can jump-start this offense. Granted, the bottom line is winning, and Dilfer has won the past 10 as a starter. But he has been more lucky than good in the playoffs.

He completed 134 of 226 passes for 1,502 yards during the regular season, but has completed only 23 of 48 passes for 437 yards in the team's three playoff games. Other players have been as ineffective, but Dilfer hasn't thrown the long ball with any consistency in the past five games. The coaches hold their breath, fearing a turnover whenever the unit is on the field.

They are waiting to exhale. If the Ravens had only an average offense, they might be unbeatable.

Though the Ravens should be dominating again on defense next season, there is no guarantee because of injuries and the salary cap situations that might force the team to lose linebacker Jamie Sharper and safety Kim Herring. Also, opposing teams will thoroughly study tape during the off-season to find a way to take apart the Ravens' defense.

That's why the Ravens need a proven quarterback other than Dilfer. The Ravens should give him a two-year deal with an option in the second season, similar to the four-year, $18.6 million deal (with a two-year option) Banks signed last off-season. Dilfer's agent might object and threaten to shop him elsewhere, but who cares?

Attention, Kmart shoppers: Now on sale, Trent Dilfer.

There won't be a lot of demand.

With Johnson, the Ravens would get a quarterback Brian Billick is comfortable with, going back to their days in Minnesota. There has been speculation that Washington might put a franchise tag designation on Johnson, but that's unlikely, because the Redskins would then be forced to pay him $6.9 million next season.

Johnson has been injury-prone, and his body is fragile, but he can still make plays and the quick, short throws Billick wants in his West Coast offense. This season, Johnson didn't show the Pro Bowl form he had in 1999, but he was throwing to receivers James Thrash, Albert Connell and an old man, Irving Fryar.

They didn't remind anyone of the Three Amigos.

Baltimore fans might have to take a leap of faith with Billick again, and hope they don't crash like they did with Scott Mitchell. The Ravens are believed to be No. 1 on Johnson's list, followed by Tampa Bay and Atlanta.

"Truthfully, we're keeping all our options open," said Philip Williams, Johnson's agent. "We have not spoken to Baltimore, but we've seen a lot of speculation on the Internet and on ESPN. Wherever he goes, this will likely be the last team he plays for in his career, and we want to make sure this is going to be the right place."

The Ravens shouldn't offer Johnson a multi-year, lucrative contract either. If he doesn't want to come to Baltimore, the Ravens might be able to trade for Buffalo's Doug Flutie or Rob Johnson, and there is also talk around the league that Jacksonville's Mark Brunell might end up on the free-agent market.

Without a new quarterback, the Ravens might be in the same situation again. If that's the case, then Redman should enter the picture. He can hand off just as well as Dilfer, and throws a much better ball. He can get on-the-job training.

The Ravens seem to be in fine shape to make an upgrade via trade or free agency. They have one Super Bowl appearance, the league's best defense and the potential for another run at Super Bowl glory.

It would be just so much easier if they upgraded at quarterback.

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