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Give Trent a fond farewell

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2000


ST. LOUIS -- Five days after the Bucs' season ends, Trent Dilfer's career in Tampa Bay will be over.

That's the indication coming from One Buc Place, although no formal announcement is likely until the middle of next week at the earliest, depending on the outcome of today's NFC Championship Game.

There are three primary reasons the Bucs won't pick up the option on the final two years of Dilfer's contract.

The biggest factor is the success of rookie Shaun King, who ledthe Bucs to victories in six of the seven games in which he appeared.

Had King performed the way most first-year quarterbacks do and not taken his team to the playoffs, the Bucs would have been reluctant to pin the 2000 season on a 22-year-old.

But Tampa Bay is King's team, which brings us to the second factor. The Bucs not want to pay a $4.6-million bonus and base salaries of more than $2-million per season to Dilfer when that money can be used to improve the league's 28th-ranked offense.

Finally, the Bucs want to be fair to Dilfer, who will have a great opportunity as a free agent to start for another team.

Consider the free-agent quarterbacks: Jeff Blake, Neil O'Donnell, Gus Frerotte. Possibly Jeff George or Randall Cunningham.

Most recycled quarterbacks are too old or too brittle. Dilfer is 27 and durable. He has a playoff victory and a Pro Bowl on his resume.

Were Dilfer forced to return to the Bucs, you'd have to wonder what kind of response he would get from the fans.

Because he was a No. 1 pick and got off to a horrific start -- throwing four touchdowns and 18 interceptions in his first season as a starter -- Dilfer has been an easy target for the team's failures. But what about what he accomplished?

Since the middle of the '96 season, Dilfer's record is 31-20. Although it will be an asterisk to this season, it was Dilfer who engineered the Bucs' turnaround.

He responded to being benched with class and composure, a difficult task considering his streak of 70 starts ended not by injury but when coach Tony Dungy kicked out the plug.

Dilfer always was terrified of failure, and he did not respond well to pressure situations. When the worst thing imaginable happened and the sun still rose the next morning, Dilfer's attitude underwent a metamorphosis.

When he returned to the lineup, he played with passion and precision. Teammates immediately noticed the change in practice and responded positively.

The Bucs began their turnaround at New Orleans and Dilfer was at the center of it. His long pass to Jacquez Green broke a string of eight quarters without a touchdown and sparked the Bucs' most productive game of the season on offense. As a starter, he was 7-3 and completed nearly 60 percent of his passes, a career high.

The Bucs have kicked a lot of quarterbacks overboard only to watch them surface in the Super Bowl, as league MVP or in championship games.

Dilfer would do well to approach the success enjoyed by Doug Williams, Steve Young and Vinny Testaverde. Lord knows, he's battle-tested.

Say this about Dilfer. He may not be the prettiest passer in the league and his game still needs work, but Dilfer took as much grief as any quarterback in the NFL and managed not to become bitter. Whether it was because of his faith or his family, he kept his head screwed on straight and poured his heart out of his arm.

Ironically, it was a broken clavicle -- the only serious injury of Dilfer's career -- that led to King's storybook season. For Dilfer, there is only an epilogue.

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