Trent Dilfer's five-year term as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting quarterback has been a maddening meld of thrills and spills, and last Saturday night, as he dined at a suburban Seattle sushi spot, the NFL's favorite whipping boy sensed that the end was near. "I actually feel sort of liberated," Dilfer said. "They're probably going to make me the fall guy, so my feeling now is, If I'm going down, I'm gonna go down my way—because their way wasn't giving me a chance."
It turns out Dilfer's seafood feast was likely his last supper as Tampa Bay's starter. Two plays into the third quarter of the Bucs' fourth consecutive victory, a 16-3 drubbing of the Seattle Seahawks at the Kingdome on Sunday, Dilfer scrambled out of the pocket and was slammed, throwing-shoulder-first, into the artificial turf by defensive end Phillip Daniels. The resulting broken right clavicle probably ended Dilfer's season—and, quite likely, his stint with the Buccaneers—at precisely the time that Tampa Bay was launching a playoff drive filled with tantalizing possibilities.
Coach Tony Dungy has favored an offense more conservative than Pat Buchanan, and now, with Dilfer giving way to rookie Shaun King or career backup Eric Zeier, the attack is likely to become even more constricted. Still, the Bucs, who at 7-4 are tied with the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings atop the NFC Central, might be strong enough to overpower a relatively soft conference. With a ferocious defense that forced six turnovers against the AFC West-leading Seahawks (8-3), Tampa Bay seems capable of becoming dominant by January if only it can get a consistent performance at quarterback.
"We know we can make the big play if you need it, and that's what championship defenses do," middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson said after the game. "When we play like this, there's a tendency to look down the road and say, 'There could be something special in store for this team.' "
Yet before we start formulating twisted Super Bowl fantasies—Still scoreless here in Atlanta as the Bucs and the Jaguars begin their seventh quarter of play—the Bucs have a lot to prove. Other than rookie kicker Martin Gramatica, who connected from 42, 40 and 37 yards against the Seahawks to push his season total to 21 field goals in 25 attempts, Tampa Bay has no reliable scoring threat. Some Bucs players believe the cautious atmosphere created by Dungy and offensive coordinator Mike Shula has made the players tense to the point that they are fearful of making mistakes. Dilfer's allusion to going down his way meant taking more chances than his coaches prefer. He was benched following Tampa Bay's 6-3 victory over the Chicago Bears on Oct. 24, ending his streak of 70 consecutive starts, after angrily blasting the team's play selection on the sideline.
The Bucs, in Dilfer's words, are "the most frustrating team on earth. We can take it to anyone, yet any game we play we're very capable of losing." After ending a 15-year playoff drought in '97, Tampa Bay staggered to an 8-8 record in '98 and wheezed to a 3-4 start this year. In the Bucs' most recent defeat, a 20-3 setback at Detroit on Oct. 31, newly installed starter Zeier suffered bruised ribs, an injury from which he has yet to recover. Dilfer responded by playing some of the best football of his career over the next three weeks. Now, at least for the short term, Tampa Bay's offensive fortunes will be dictated by King, a 22-year-old St. Petersburg native who reacted to his first NFL appearance as though it were a day at Clearwater Beach.
While Dilfer lay injured on the Kingdome turf, the other Bucs offensive players huddled and reminded one another of the importance of keeping King calm. "It was kind of funny," center Tony Mayberry said afterward. "When he got to the huddle, we realized he was probably the calmest, most confident guy in there."
With the Bucs holding a 6-3 lead, King had two modest goals: Don't make any costly mistakes, and get the ball into the end zone once. He avoided the former and accomplished the latter with 12:21 remaining, finishing an eight-play, 67-yard drive that included his only three completions of the day. On third-and-goal from the Seattle two-yard line, King faked a handoff to running back Warrick Dunn, then coolly hung in the pocket until he spotted reserve tight end Patrick Hape in the back of the end zone. "It felt just like practice," King said later. "I pride myself on being composed."
Whether King, a second-round draft choice, stays in the lineup—he was expected to start this Monday's showdown with the Vikings in Tampa, but Zeier could replace him for the next week's rematch with Detroit—he's clearly the Bucs' quarterback of the future. "He didn't go 12-0 for Tulane last year, with a broken left wrist, for no reason," says general manager Rich McKay. "You would think we'd stay conservative with him, except Shaun makes a lot of plays when he's on the move."
When Tampa Bay's defense is performing the way it did on Sunday, the Bucs could win with Larry King at quarterback. After giving up a 25-yard Todd Peterson field goal on the game's opening drive, the Bucs put the clamps on Seattle coach Mike Holmgren's dynamic offense, forcing the Seahawks to use halfback Ricky Watters and tight end Christian Fauria as extra blockers on numerous occasions. Led by voluble defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who seems to have succeeded Reggie White as the game's dominant lineman, and dynamic linebackers Nickerson and Derrick Brooks, the Bucs cruised to victory in a game in which they caught nearly as many passes thrown by Seahawks quarterback Jon Kitna (five) as they did from their own quarterbacks (eight). Tampa Bay had nine first downs, 156 total yards and one convincing victory over a rising AFC power. It's a tough way to win, but for now it's working. "I would take 16 points every week," Sapp said.