Once Trent Dilfer found out failure could not crush him, he succeeded on and off the field.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Trent Dilfer beams as he leaves the field following the Buccaneers' 24-22 victory over the Green Bay Packers on a Monday night in 1998.
By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- We begin on the worst day of Trent Dilfer's professional life. And shudder at the depth of his embarrassment.
Here is a proud man. A man of accomplishment and bravado, who has just been humbled publicly. Dilfer's deepest anxiety has now been fed and so he waits for the shame he has feared for so long.
This is the day that started Trent Dilfer toward Super Bowl XXXV.
He owes it all to you, Tampa Bay. And to you, Tony Dungy. For it was here, with the Buccaneers, that Dilfer came to understand where football ranked in his life. That is to say, somewhere lower than it once did.
There is a note on the refrigerator in the Aptos, Calif., home where Dilfer's mother and stepfather live. His mother, Marcie Lynch, has taken to reading it to him at appropriate moments.
The sign of God's will is that we will be led where we did not plan to go.
Now you might be inclined to interpret that in a most literal sense. Dilfer has found his greatest achievement -- as the starting quarterback for a Super Bowl team -- here with the Baltimore Ravens. And heaven knows Dilfer, nor anyone else, ever planned for that.
But perhaps the note does not refer to geography. Perhaps the place where Dilfer was being led was somewhere in his heart. And perhaps he began to discover that place soon after that October 1999 day when Dungy replaced him with Eric Zeier as the Bucs' starting quarterback.
"Once his streak of starts was broken, he took a whole new stance on what was important. Football took a back seat to life," said Joe Broussard, a longtime friend and the minister who performed Dilfer's wedding ceremony. "He became real calm. Football was a game again and life became more important. He started being more concerned with how his kids were being raised and how they were going to end up. And what the shape of his marriage was like. He started opening his eyes to the rest of the world.
"He had been forced into an unreal vacuum where football was everything. And football failed him."
It is popular to portray Dilfer's stay in Tampa Bay as one long and trying journey. It is also revisionist history.
Try remembering this:
Dilfer won more games than any quarterback in franchise history. He took Tampa Bay to its first playoff appearance in 15 years. He is the only Buccaneer quarterback to be elected to the Pro Bowl.
Yet all of that success came at a price. Namely, Dilfer's psyche. He felt stifled in Dungy's conservative system, but at the same time was determined to show he was among the league's best quarterbacks.
"For players who have reached a lot of goals early in their careers -- and Trent fit that category as a high draft pick, a Pro Bowl selection, taking the Bucs to the playoffs -- the fear of failure is really, really large," said Dilfer's agent, Mike Sullivan. "In '98 and '99, his biggest problem was the fear of failure and fear of being benched. Once it happened, it wasn't nearly what he thought. It was liberating. It was having his worst fear realized."
Selected by the Bucs with the No. 6 pick in the 1994 draft, Dilfer was the latest in a long line of savior quarterbacks. Beginning in 1978, the Bucs used first-round draft picks (in the amateur draft, supplemental draft and through trades) on quarterbacks Doug Williams, Vinny Testaverde, Steve Young, Jack Thompson and Chris Chandler. Only Testaverde lasted longer than five years.
If Dilfer was intimidated by the Bucs' abysmal track record, he never let it show. He was just this side of cocky and Tampa Bay was just desperate enough to believe he was real. The beginning was rocky -- Dilfer grew to loathe then-coach Sam Wyche -- but it began to turn when Dungy arrived.
Although their offensive philosophies were different -- one was conservative and the other aggressive -- Dungy and Dilfer seemed to find common ground. The Bucs improved in 1996 and, along with Dilfer, had a breakthrough in '97.
In spite of this success, Dungy never appeared completely sold on his quarterback. And Dilfer, who is surprisingly sensitive for an accomplished athlete, grew increasingly uncomfortable.
"From the time he was a little boy, Trent has always needed someone's approval," his mother said. "When he was little and he did something great, he would turn around and wait for me to clap. He has always been that way. I think all performers love being in the spotlight, and who doesn't want to be appreciated? Trent just needed someone to believe in him."
The Bucs got off to a slow start last season and Dilfer's play was less than impressive. The greater the pressure grew, the tighter he seemed to play. It is generally acknowledged that Dilfer is sometimes too smart for his own good. He overanalyzes his life. He thinks when he should react.
He had a streak of 70 consecutive starts that was second only to Brett Favre among active quarterbacks. He kept the streak going through a variety of injuries, enduring injections and popping painkillers to stay on the field.
To Dilfer, the streak was evidence of his value, his courage, his will to win. To Dungy, it was meaningless for a coach trying to win games.
It came to an end Oct. 25, 1999, when Dungy benched Dilfer after a particularly ugly 6-3 victory against Chicago. This was the day Dilfer feared. The low point of his professional life. And, as it turns out, the turning point.
"That streak had become really important to him. And when that got taken away, it made him step back and take a look at things," Dilfer's stepfather, Frank Lynch, said. "After the initial shock, I think he was able to say, "What the heck? That's the worst that can happen to me?' Once he got through that, football became more fun.
"I think when Trent talks about how the times in Tampa Bay have made him the person that he is now, that's what he's talking about."
Dilfer actually spent very little time on the bench. Zeier injured a rib and Dilfer returned as the starter the next week.
Determined to play looser, even if he still was following a rigid game plan, Dilfer shined. During the next four weeks, he completed 58 percent of his passes and threw five touchdowns with just two interceptions.
And the Bucs, stagnant at 3-4, won four straight.
"That four-game stretch might have been my proudest moment in football," Dilfer said. "Because I felt, "You know what? We have one chance. And that's for me not to let any of this stuff bother me.' For four games, I really feel like I played great football among the circumstances.
"To me, those four weeks meant a lot for my career. Meant a lot for where I'm at right now."
Dilfer broke his collarbone in that fourth game against Seattle and Shaun King took over the offense. King delivered Tampa Bay to the cusp of the Super Bowl before losing to St. Louis in the NFC Championship Game.
The Bucs quickly had to decide whether Dilfer or King was to lead the franchise in 2000. If it was merely a question of talent, the debate might have had merit. But for Dilfer's 2000 contract option to be picked up, the Bucs had to pay him a $4.6-million bonus that was due in March.
The answer was obvious.
On Jan. 25, Tampa Bay cut ties with Dilfer.
"It was the right thing to do. It made sense," Dilfer said. "Why make Trent continue doing something he hasn't been successful doing for a couple of years. Why go through that? The hard part was just leaving there."
Dilfer always had maintained that his talents were more valued around the league than in Tampa Bay. That was not readily apparent in February.
A month into free agency, he had yet to sign. Friends say he was increasingly uncomfortable as vagabonds such as Mike Tomczak, Kent Graham, Dave Brown and Gus Frerotte found jobs. With 31 teams in the NFL, there were 62 jobs for starters and backups. Dilfer figured 60 had been filled by the time he signed a one-year, $1-million deal with the Ravens.
His salary package was less than what Tomczak, Graham, Neil O'Donnell, Jay Fiedler or even Zeier received last off-season.
He began as a backup behind Tony Banks which, in retrospect, gave him time to learn coach Brian Billick's system and grow more relaxed. He lost his first game as a starter in October and since has won 10 straight. Including his final days with the Bucs, Dilfer is 15-1 in his past 16 starts.
Friends and teammates joke about Dilfer's propensity to cry. Get him talking long enough about his family, career or the weather, and eventually the tears will come.
But it is precisely that emotional edge that has served him well as Baltimore's quarterback. Dilfer has not produced impressive statistics, but he has helped a woeful offense believe in itself to the point that it produces when necessary.
"He's passionate about the game and that's good for this group," Billick said. "A lot of teams can become pro-ized, by that I mean it's cool to be detached. "I'm a pro, I'm a professional.' You hear that a lot in every profession from hookers to lawyers. Young guys mistakenly think that means "Don't be too passionate about the game; it's just a job.'
"That's not the way to win. Trent is a professional. He's been at it a long time, yet he brings a lot of passion to the game. The younger players see that and recognize "It's okay. I can be professional and still be passionate and excited about the game I love.' "
Dilfer says he was so conditioned to avoid mistakes with the Bucs that he has had to revive his instincts in Baltimore. The Ravens may have a conservative offense, but Dilfer said it does not compare with Tampa Bay's. He said it is the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose.
And these days, all he does is win.
* * *
It was when he realized the shame and humiliation he feared was mostly a product of his own mind that Dilfer began to relax.
And it was when he began to care less about football that he became a better football player.
He is due to return in hours, and it is within his rights to claim vindication. Thus far, he has resisted every temptation to do so.
"I thought it would be vindication for him after they won in Oakland, but there will probably never be vindication for Trent in some areas," his mother said. "I don't think that bothers him. He is just very peaceful now. He says he doesn't need to be a success in football to feel complete.
"But it sure is more fun."
Tampa Bay is what made him what he is today, Dilfer said.
And that is, a better man.
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