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"I am an open book," says Trent Dilfer, sitting in a darkened golf clubhouse dining room. It is well past midnight and the chef, waiters, busboys and dishwashers are long gone. He pauses a moment—a rare occurrence for the NFC's most talkative quarterback—and then goes back to spewing self-reflective thoughts.
Dilfer, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quote machine, is an open book, sort of a cross between War and Peace and I'm OK, You're OK. In a world in which athletes are analyzed and criticized with increasing fervor, Dilfer, probably the league's most maligned quarterback over the past three seasons, is more than happy to do the job on himself. "I've been ridiculed, ripped and mocked," he says. "I became a joke around the league because I threw four touchdown passes and 18 interceptions in an entire season . And I laughed, too, because it was funny—four touchdown passes!—and because it'll never happen again." (We interrupt to note that Dilfer takes a breath, albeit a quick one, before continuing.) "I enjoy talking to the media. I do a lot of thinking, and doing an interview helps me sort out my thoughts. For the most part, I don't blame the media for ripping me because if I was in the media, I would've been all over me, too."
No columnist or talk-show host could be as hard on Dilfer as Dilfer is on Dilfer. Yet, paradoxically, he is brimming with self-confidence as he contemplates the season ahead. He blossomed into an effective passer during the final 11 games of 1996, leading the Bucs to a 6-5 record over that stretch (chart, page 58) and positioning himself as a man on the verge of a nervous breakthrough. "I have the physical skills to play at the highest level," he says. "The reason I haven't succeeded is that I'm not there mentally. People think I'm a nut. How many people pray before a big third down? I pray for poise and confidence because I believe that when I'm poised and confident, I can't be stopped."
Just ask the scouts who saw Dilfer execute a pro-style offense to perfection at Fresno State. During his junior year, in 1993, he set an NCAA record by throwing 318 passes without being intercepted, and he finished the season with 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
The next spring Dilfer entered the NFL draft and was selected by Tampa Bay with the sixth pick. He was hailed as a savior and signed to an eight-year, $16.5 million contract, but in his rookie season he belly flopped like Nate Newton going off the high dive. Dilfer's first pro start came in October 1994, when coach Sam Wyche decided to sit down the Bucs' regular quarterback, Craig Erickson, to take a look at Dilfer. Tampa Bay was playing the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park, which is about 50 miles from Dilfer's hometown of Aptos, Calif. Approximately 500 of Dilfer's friends and relatives attended that game and watched him complete seven of 23 passes for 45 yards in a 41-16 loss. After seeing limited duty in four other games, Dilfer finished his first year with six interceptions against one touchdown pass.
After the season the Bucs shipped the popular Erickson to the Indianapolis Colts, effectively giving Dilfer the starting job. In 1995 he put together one of the worst seasons in NFL history, becoming only the fourth quarterback to throw just four touchdowns while attempting at least 300 passes. He also engaged in a messy feud with Wyche, who was fired at season's end. Dilfer started 16 games but was benched four times by Wyche, who inserted backup Casey Weldon on each occasion. Dilfer responded by publicly questioning Wyche's offense and leadership. "I sensed a guy that was drowning that year," Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay says of Dilfer. "Every incomplete pass was a disaster—he'd throw his helmet—and you could see the pressure was getting to him."
In those days Dilfer's legion of critics ranged from Fox TV's Terry Bradshaw and NBC's Mike Ditka to various players. "I'd be at a golf tournament or some other function," Dilfer says, "and conversations would stop when I got near."
When second-year Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer hired Tony Dungy to replace Wyche in January 1996, Dilfer seemed to be a prime candidate for sacrifice. Had Dungy brought in his own quarterback, there would have been little protest. But Dungy, who as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator in '94 and '95 had faced Dilfer three times, admired Dilfer's arm and toughness. He also flashed back to his days as a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back in the late 70s and thought of Bradshaw, a No. 1 overall pick who shook off some bad early years to become a four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback and a Hall of Famer. "When I got to Pittsburgh in 1977, he was a hero," Dungy says of Bradshaw. "But I remember when he was booed coming off the field, and the fans cheered when he got hurt. People forget that Joe Gilliam was the starter at the beginning of the Steelers' first Super Bowl season ."
A few days after taking the Tampa Bay job, Dungy called Dilfer into his office for what Dungy thought would be a brief meeting. They talked for an hour—or, more accurately, Dilfer talked and Dungy listened. When Dungy finally got a few words in, he told Dilfer that he would have to compete for the starting job in training camp but that whoever won it would remain the starter for the entire season. "I was shocked," Dilfer says. "I went from having the job handed to me at the expense of a guy [Erickson] who was a better player at the time to having to compete with a guy [Weldon] who's not as good as I am."
Dilfer remains a huge admirer of Erickson, who played well with the Bucs and gained the support of his teammates. There was locker-room resentment of Dilfer not only because he displaced Erickson but also because he led a tame life.