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No regrets

Trent Dilfer holds no hard feelings against the Bucs. He's doing just fine in the playoffs.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2001


photo
[AP photo]
Trent Dilfer has a chance to win a post-season game - a really big one - at Raymond James this year.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- For all those years he was beaten and teased by the promise of his talent, Trent Dilfer was finally brought to his knees. Not in defeat, but in prayer. Having thrown a crucial interception minutes earlier, Dilfer rid himself of many lingering apparitions with a last-minute touchdown pass, making Baltimore the first visiting team to win at Tennessee's Adelphia Coliseum. Hysteria was the order of the moment that November day, but national television cameras caught Dilfer kneeling on the turf in reflection.

"To me, it was six years of mental and emotional maturity coming out in a matter of 31/2 minutes," Dilfer said. "When I got on my knees and thanked God, it was not for the win. It was thanking him for putting me through the fire for six years so that when this moment came (he) had developed enough in me to overcome it. It was like, "Oh my gosh, all of it was worth it, God, all of what I've been through.' All the mistakes, the successes, the adversity, the grind, the humiliation, had prepared me for this."

If that is the case, then the Buccaneers and their fans deserve a fair bit of Dilfer's gratitude as well. For it was Tampa Bay that witnessed Dilfer's successes, jeered his mistakes and was the source of his humiliation.

He departed the bay area less than a year ago, yet life seems to have moved Dilfer further away from his memories than free agency could on its own.

There was little outrage from the talk radio crowd when the Bucs declined to pick up Dilfer's contract and he left after six years. Yet he holds no bitter feelings about his career with the Bucs.

Who has time to be bitter?

Dilfer has a playoff game this weekend.

Dilfer, 28, has won eight straight games for the Ravens as they return to Adelphia for Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game against Tennessee.

The quarterback who never quite could get the Bucs through the playoffs has a chance to bring Baltimore to the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.

"This is the thing I don't think people understand: The decision was Tampa's, but I would have made the same decision. It was better for them, and it was better for me," Dilfer said of the team's split with a player drafted in the first round in 1994. "I had a going-away party in Tampa, and Rich (McKay, general manager) was there because he was a friend. Because there was no bitterness. ... Rich McKay treated me the way I should be treated. In every area. When he drafted me, when he was patient with me, when he was hard on me. And when he's getting rid of me.

"They were so much better off spending my and (Paul) Gruber's money on Keyshawn (Johnson), Randall (McDaniel) and (Jeff) Christy to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish. Now, if they wanted to open up the offense and do other things then, no, they shouldn't have gotten rid of me. But for what they wanted to do, the profile they wanted to be, get rid of me, take the $5-million and go spend it on someone who's going to make that work. I agreed with that 100 percent."

If the split was amicable, the marriage was not always so blissful. Dilfer had a less than harmonious relationship with former Bucs coach Sam Wyche, and by the time Tony Dungy arrived, Dilfer's confidence was in decline. A fair number of fans might also claim Dilfer's skills were in decline.

The lingering image of Dilfer in Tampa Bay is the not four straight victories he posted in November 1999 to get the Bucs back in playoff contention (he later suffered a broken clavicle and never played another game for Tampa Bay), but rather the countless Sundays he stood in front of his locker trying to explain away another loss.

Dilfer seemed to be his own worst enemy. Introspective when he needed to be instinctive, sensitive when he needed to be tough.

He does not dispute the characterization. Cut loose by the Bucs, he said, he specifically looked for a low-profile job to give him time to win back the confidence he once had as a phenom coming out of Fresno State.

The Ravens offered him that chance. They had a coach (Brian Billick) with an offensive background, an incumbent starter (Tony Banks) and a minimum of expectations. Dilfer spent the first half of the season on the bench, taking over when the offense faltered in October. He lost his first start, but the Ravens have since reeled off eight straight victories.

"I'm starting to learn how to play quarterback again the way it's supposed to be played, and I give Brian and Matt (Cavanaugh, offensive coordinator) a lot of credit for that," Dilfer said. "My instincts are beginning to change. Have they changed all the way? No way. If I was able to stay here through an off-season and a 16-week season, I believe I could get back to the Trent Dilfer I was in college, instinctively. My skills have not diminished."

Dilfer is not exactly setting the world aflame, but that is not part of the game plan. Baltimore is winning with defense, and Dilfer simply is the caretaker of the offense. And he has no complaints.

He says he is beyond the days of needing adoration or recognition. He says he has no use for vindication. Dilfer says he simply is happy to be playing closer to his talents and helping a team win.

Whether he remains in Baltimore remains to be seen. There is talk the Ravens will make a run at Redskins free agent Brad Johnson in the off-season. Johnson and Billick worked together in Minnesota.

Even if he is nearing the end of the road in Baltimore, Dilfer has boosted his stock enough to merit another shot as a starting quarterback next season.

"Let's poll 50 sports writers around the country and ask what they would have wrote about Trent Dilfer's career in July of 2000. Maybe two out of 50 would have said, "He'll be fine, he'll land on his feet,' " Dilfer said. "It's worked out. So I'm not scared of the other realm. I'm not scared of that other possibility."

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