He got crushed like a beer can at a pregame tailgate, collapsing under 600 pounds of silver-and-black wrath. Curled in the fetal position, ground into the grass by Oakland Raiders defenders William Thomas and Darrell Russell at his own four-yard line—where else did America expect Trent Dilfer to be? Yet a tantalizing twist awaited: With the Raider Nation clamoring for his scalp, Dilfer, the Baltimore Ravens' ridiculed quarterback, sprang off the turf and stunningly seized the moment.
Baltimore was locked in a scoreless tie with Oakland early in the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, but Dilfer was, in his own, warped way, exulting in the agony. He's a player who prides himself on his willingness to absorb punishment, saying that "by getting up and bouncing right back, it shows the guys on defense you can take the best they've got to give. They think they're getting the better of you, but you can turn that around and demoralize them when they close in for the kill."
That's why Dilfer was strangely giddy as the Ravens huddled in their end zone. He told his teammates, "Keep the tempo up and we'll draw them in. They'll blitz again, and then we've got 'em." Turning to veteran tight end Shannon Sharpe, Dilfer added, "I'm just waiting for that matchup we've been looking for. Don't worry, it's coming."
Two plays later Dilfer delivered an off-the-Richter-scale jolt. Facing third-and-18 from the four, the 6'4", 229-pound Dilfer dropped back five steps, stared down an Oakland blitz and fired the pass of his life. Sharpe, lined up in the right slot in a spread formation called Rocket Right, caught the ball in front of strong safety Marquez Pope at the 12, blew past late-arriving free safety Anthony Dorsett and blasted into the clear. By the time the Raiders caught up to Sharpe, he was in their end zone—and the Ravens were on their way to a 16-3 victory and the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance.
So deal with it, football fans: Trent Dilfer is going to Super Bowl XXXV, and he knows exactly what you're thinking. True, he's riding the coat-tails of Baltimore's record-setting defense, and, yes, there are plenty of reasons to wonder whether he's worthy of such good fortune. Dilfer, who signed a one-year free-agent contract with Baltimore last March, concedes that even if the Ravens beat the New York Giants in Tampa, the site of the Super Bowl, he has no idea whether coach Brian Billick will ask him to return in 2001. (Billick is noncommittal on the subject.) Then, without a trace of sarcasm, Dilfer adds, "I want my legacy to be that I was the quarterback of the team that won the Super Bowl in spite of its quarterback."
The rest of the NFL may not know what to make of that statement, but let's just say that the 28-year-old Dilfer has something to prove—about toughness, perseverance, honor and self-sacrifice. Appropriately, he'll attempt to do so in Tampa, the city where he made his claim to shame. After the Buccaneers took him with the sixth pick in the 1994 draft, Dilfer, despite going to the Pro Bowl after the '97 season, became known mostly for what he wasn't: neither an especially accurate or mobile passer, nor a man adept at carrying a team. As coach Tony Dungy developed a dominant defense, Dilfer became the somewhat-deserving scapegoat for the Bucs' offensive ineptitude.
Last January, Dilfer—a man who has taken more hits, literal and figurative, than any other quarterback of his era—was released. Baltimore signed him to be a backup to Tony Banks, whom he replaced midway through the season amid the Ravens' maddening five-game stretch without a touchdown. Now, says Baltimore fullback Sam Gash, a nine-year veteran, "We love the guy. Whatever anybody has said about him and whatever he may lack physically Trent Dilfer is a great leader, one of the best I've been around."
Dilfer's leadership skills aren't easy to quantify. On Sunday he completed 9 of 18 passes for 190 yards, with one interception. Take away the 96-yard strike to Sharpe, the longest scoring pass in NFL playoff history, and Dilfer would have had a double-digit yardage day. Such noxious numbers are often cited as evidence of his inferiority, but there's a single statistic he offers as a rebuttal: In his last 15 starts, including four last year with the Bucs, Dilfer is 14-1. "I'll be the first to admit that I've had the luxury of playing with great defenses during that streak," he says, "but I've also been smart enough to do whatever it takes to win those games, even if it meant playing ugly."
There's a beauty to Dilfer's approach that only those closest to him can appreciate. " Trent sets a great tempo for our offense," said right guard Mike Flynn after Sunday's victory. "When things go badly, he doesn't get rattled, and he's good about not blaming others."
A few lockers away defensive linemen Rob Burnett and Lional Dalton lauded Dilfer for his willingness to apologize to teammates in the wake of his failures. "It's a first for me to have a quarterback like that," All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "He could be caught up in numbers and looking good, but he's obsessed with winning, and that's perfect for us."