When you reach Week 13 in the NFL schedule, better to walk under a ladder than have a quarterback controversy cross your path. Yet that is the Buccaneers' plight as they begin their stretch drive for their first playoff appearance since 1982. Season-long starter Trent Dilfer remains prone to screwing up at the wrong time. But backup Casey Weldon hasn't exactly looked like the second coming of Earl Morrall. The Bucs haven't thrown a touchdown pass in their last seven games. And here's another complicating factor: Buc coach Sam Wyche is on the hot seat, which means the call at quarterback is crucial to his future in Tampa.
The problem, simmering all season, boiled over in a 27-24 loss to Detroit on Nov. 12 that left Tampa Bay with a 5-5 record and a three-game losing streak. Wyche again became so exasperated with Dilfer that he benched him in favor of Weldon. It marked the third time in eight games that Wyche had pulled Dilfer. Against the Lions the move was made after Dilfer failed to read a blitz, resulting in a fumble that led to Detroit's go-ahead field goal.
"There was no excuse for it," says Dilfer, whose 59.8 quarterback rating is last among NFC starters. "I don't believe it's a lack of concentration. I think I'm concentrating on the wrong thing sometimes."
Whatever, this isn't what Tampa Bay expected when it made Dilfer the sixth pick of the 1994 draft and rewarded him with a franchise-record eight-year, $16.5 million contract. Weldon, who has a rating of 63.6, is in the first year of a two-year $810,920 deal. "We just want to go to the playoffs," says Weldon, a fourth-year pro out of Florida State. "Of course, I'd love to be the guy who helps us get there."
Wyche stuck with Dilfer in Sunday's 17-16 win over Jacksonville. But nobody was buying his convoluted reasoning. "What we have here is a good situation," he said in announcing his decision. "Both Casey and Trent are playing well right now. There's no need to disrupt our offense after our most productive game of the season."
Earth to Sam: Call in from wherever you are orbiting. Sure, the Bucs hammered the Lions for season highs in points (24), total yards (411), rushing yards (190) and first downs (26). But they did it against a Lion defense that ranks 29th in the league. Against Jacksonville, Dilfer was his usual unspectacular self, completing 9 of 20 passes. But at 6-5, the Bucs remain a game behind the Packers in the NFC Central. The teams meet twice in the next three weeks, starting with Sunday's game in Green Bay.
"If we win the rest of our games, I don't care if I throw a TD pass," Dilfer said. "I've sort of given up on the stat thing this year."
What's so strange about the marvelous job that the Vikings' Dave Dixon has done in place of injured All-Pro offensive guard Chris Hinton? Heck, doesn't everybody have a 6'5", 354-pound rugby player from New Zealand waiting in the wings?