SI Vault
 
Tampa Bay BUCCANEERS
Peter King
August 30, 1999
Success is dependent on the performance of sixth-year quarterback Trent Dilfer, who (this time we mean it) is facing a make-or-break season
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 30, 1999

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Success is dependent on the performance of sixth-year quarterback Trent Dilfer, who (this time we mean it) is facing a make-or-break season

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

RUNNING AGROUND

Tampa Bay ran the ball a league-high 52.3% of its plays from scrimmage last year. The Bucs' 8-8 finish was unusually poor for a team that ran that often: In the 1990s, 38 teams have finished a season with more rushing plays than pass plays, and only seven of them (18%) failed to finish with a winning record.

Team

Rushing plays

Pass plays

Pct. of plays that were rushes

W-L

1994 Colts

495

404

55.1

8-8

1997 Oilers

541

452

54.5

8-8

1998 Buccaneers

523

477

52.3

8-8

1993 Bears

477

436

52.2

7-9

1991 Giants

487

464

51.2

8-8

1992 Browns

451

432

51.1

7-9

1993 Jets

52

510

50.5

8-8

Going into training camp I each of the past three seasons, the Buccaneers had reason to I predict that quarterback Trent Dilfer would live up to the expectations that made him Tampa Bay's first-round pick—No. 6 overall—in the 1994 draft. In '96, when coach Tony Dungy took over for Sam Wyche, the theory went: Trent won't have that wacky Sam to screw him up anymore. In '97 it was: He's had a year to get the offense down, so now he'll flourish. In '98, after the Bucs added wideouts Bert Emanuel and Jacquez Green, it was: He's finally got the weapons he needs to be a premier player.

But as the Bucs attempt to rebound from a disappointing 8-8 season, they're no longer making excuses for Dilfer. "Trent has to play better" has become Dungy's mantra. Dilfer has made 64 consecutive starts, but he has thrown 10 more interceptions (69) than touchdowns during his career. In no season has he reached the NFL's average completion percentage for the 1990s (57%). Last year Dilfer did little to distinguish himself, with 21 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He stumbled in losses to the Lions and the Saints, and he saved his poorest performance for perhaps Tampa Bay's biggest game: With the Bucs fighting for a playoff spot on Dec. 19, Dilfer completed 14 passes in 34 attempts for a mere 100 yards in a 20-16 upset loss to the Redskins.

As he prepares for a new season, Dilfer knows this much: Dungy won't be so hesitant to make a change, especially now that Tampa Bay has added Eric Zeier, acquired in a trade with the Ravens, and Shaun King, a second-round draft pick out of Tulane. That's quite an upgrade from the Steve Walsh-Scott Milanovich duo that backed up Dilfer last year. "It's do or die," says Dilfer. "This is the year that matters. I've got to get it done."

To prepare for this challenge, Dilfer dropped 12 pounds from his playing weight of last year; at about 226 he'll be better able to evade the rush. For the first time in the Dungy era he'll have a quarterbacks coach. Clyde Christensen moves into the role after spending the last three seasons working with the Bucs' tight ends. Dungy is also flirting with the shotgun, a set that enables a quarterback to get a better view of a pass play as it unfolds.

Those changes are all well and good, but if Dilfer expects to become a marquee player, he's going to have to improve his accuracy. Good NFL quarterbacks complete at least 60% of their throws; after three mostly inactive seasons, Randall Cunningham stepped off the unemployment line to complete 61% of his passes for the Vikings last year. It's hard to imagine Dilfer's improving from his 52% completion rate of 1998 to the low 60s (his best season came in 1996, when he completed more than 55% of his attempts), but that's what the Bucs need him to do. "I'm focusing on statistical accuracy," Dilfer says. "What I'm stressing with each receiver in practice is that he run each route exactly the same every time in practices and games."

If Dilfer can get on target, most of the other pieces needed for Tampa Bay to make its second playoff appearance in three years seem to be in place. A receiving corps with Emanuel, the speedy Green and Reidel Anthony complements the strong backfield of cat-quick tailback Warrick Dunn and mountainous fullback Mike Alstott. One major question mark, however, is Emanuel, a disappointment last year after coming over as a free agent from the Falcons. Slowed by a sprained right ankle and a bruised kidney as well as a concussion, he caught only 41 passes for 636 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games. The receiving numbers were the lowest of his five-year career and nowhere near the output the Bucs expected from a player they signed to a four-year, $16.4 million contract in April 1998. "It's good to be back to my old self," Emanuel said early in camp. "Now I can give the team the production it expects," which is about 75 catches and 1,200 yards. Alas, Emanuel was slowed in mid-August by another concussion.

On the other side of the ball, Tampa Bay is the only NFL team rated in the top five in total defense each of the last two years, and this year's unit should be better than ever. One sizeable reason: defensive tackle Warren Sapp's waistline. "No ifs, ands or buts about it," says Sapp, whose sack total dropped from 10½ in '97 to seven last season. "I was too fat last year. Everybody knew it. Everybody saw it." He's down about 30 pounds, to 286, and should give the Bucs the inside pass-rush pressure they lacked in '98.

In the end, though, Tampa Bay's fate will rest not with Sapp but on the right arm of Dilfer. Or Zeier. Or King. For the Bucs, that's progress.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

1