Ravens QB Dilfer lugging his own bags back to Tampa
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- His team has won 10 games in a row. None of them pretty. Trent Dilfer does not do pretty.
"I have no problems at all saying that my teammates carried me. They carried me. They carried me!
"Hey, we're a team," Dilfer said. "And we're going to the Super Bowl as a team."
The trip won't be nearly as simple as it sounds. There isn't an airline in business willing to haul even half his baggage back with him.
When Dilfer left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past offseason, fans would have climbed over each other to drive him to the airport. Imagine how those people will feel a week from now, when the quarterback who left in disgrace rolls back into town manning the controls of the Super Bowl-contending Baltimore Ravens.
That's practically a tradition with the Bucs. They're the same franchise that dumped Doug Williams, Steve Young and Chris Chandler, only to watch those three quarterbacks reach the Super Bowl with Washington, San Francisco and Atlanta.
Last week, someone asked Dilfer what going back to Tampa that would be like.
"Kind of ironic," was all he said.
Sunday, Dilfer was only a little more expansive.
"Obviously, I'm excited. I think the greatest lesson I've learned in life is that you can't go running from adversity. You have to let it hit you straight in the face," he said.
"I'm very thankful for my six years in Tampa. I would not trade one experience I had there because it made me the man you see today."
That's the one constant with Dilfer. He may cry, the way he did along the sideline in the waning moments of Baltimore's 16-3 AFC championship win against the Raiders. But he never gloats. Have one failure after another shoved in your face the way Dilfer has and payback doesn't seem that important.
Dilfer was called a first-round bust and was blamed for getting his first coach, Sam Wyche, fired in Tampa. He made the Pro Bowl one season, then lost his starting job to Eric Zeier, who will be remembered now as the answer to a trivia question.
Yet the same qualities that the Ravens staff admired in their reserve QB -- dedication, preparation and a level head -- are the same ones that made Dilfer ready to step into the starter's role at the most important juncture of the season. The Ravens promptly ran off 10 wins in a row.
None of them was pretty. Maybe because Dilfer doesn't do pretty.
"He's not a great quarterback," Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson concurred, "but he did enough to win the game."
In this case, enough was completing 9 of 18 passes for 190 yards, with the lion's share -- 96 yards -- coming on a catch-and-run touchdown to Shannon Sharpe. Against Tennessee a week ago, Dilfer was an even more paltry 5-of-16 for 117 yards; not surprisingly, 56 of those came on a single catch by Sharpe.
Dilfer must have known something good was up, when Sharpe pulled him over just before the kickoff and said, "I promise you I will make you some plays [Sunday]."
Yet Dilfer became what he is largely through self-reliance. And the image he relies on most often is the scene from the movie, Hoosiers. It's the one, Dilfer volunteered, "where the coach measures the basket and the length of the floor and everything.
"No matter what you did the week before, you go in and prepare," he said.
From that bedrock, Billick built himself a championship team. The coach's reputation was built on his offensive genius, but slowly this Raven team taught him the smartest tack to take to the Super Bowl was defense. Conversely, the more simple the game plan became, the more important it was for Dilfer to execute it with a minimum of mistakes. And Sunday, he made a beauty.
Nursing a 10-0 halftime lead, he came out on the opening drive and tried to wedge a quick slant to Sharpe between two defenders. Raider safety Johnnie Harris stepped in front of the throw and nine plays later, Oakland notched a field goal and climbed back to 10-3.
Unfazed, Dilfer marched the Ravens back 62 yards for a field of their own and a 13-3 lead. The drive was vintage Baltimore: eight runs up the gut by workhorse back Jamal Lewis and two safe passes -- both short curl patterns -- to Brandon Stokely and Ben Coates. The Ravens defense took care of the rest.
That was supposed to be the formula for a Super Bowl trip this season not just in Baltimore, but in Tampa Bay as well. The quarterback the Bucs chose couldn't get it done. The first one Baltimore tried couldn't, either.
Say what you want about Dilfer's arm or his smarts, but say this about him, too. When the chance fell to him, he was ready.
"I have no bitterness whatsoever. I know it was the right decision for them and it was the right decision for me. I don't know how good I am," Dilfer said, "but I know I'm the right quarterback for this team."
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press.