Monday, February 9, 2009

Catching Up With Trent Dilfer

One of the most polarizing players in the history of the Buccaneers, Trent Dilfer played six seasons for Tampa Bay from 1994-1999. The Bucs drafted the quarterback out of Fresno State with their first pick in the 1994 draft, and hopes were high from day one. Although he helped lead the Buccaneers to two playoff berths, Dilfer never quite lived up to the expectations of the fans or his organization. He achieved the ultimate success during the 2000 season, however, as he quarterbacked the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl victory. In town last week covering Super Bowl XLIII for ESPN, Dilfer took some time to open up on his years as a Buccaneer.

Q. You were a top draft pick coming out of Fresno State and were considered to be the savior of the franchise. How did you approach that situation?

A. Well, to start I was young and dumb. I thought that if you had the success I had in college, it would translate to success in the NFL. I had these grand illusions that I was going to come in and immediately change the way the Buccaneers played football. It didn't take me long to realize that wasn't going to happen. The first two years with Sam Wyche were a great struggle. I'd never experienced failure like that before. I got physically beat up, emotionally beat up. I really learned a lot about how to overcome failure and deal with adversity that I hadn't dealt with in college. It was healthy, and the lessons I learned will be what help me answer the rest of these questions.

Q. What was it like as a rookie to try and learn Sam Wyche's offense?

A. Mind-boggling. The quarterback was asked to do so much. Way more than any other quarterback was asked to do in the National Football League. Light years more. We had hundreds and hundreds of code words for plays and formations and motions at the line of scrimmage. Not only were you trying to dissect defenses, not only were you just trying to run your offense, but then you had a whole other layer of complexity with how you were communicating to your team. It just became overload. I felt we were trying to trick people more than just line up and play good football. My fundamentals went to crap. How I played football totally changed because my mind was so cluttered with all this peripheral stuff that I didn't think mattered.

Q. Would you equate that with Jon Gruden's system and maybe the difficulties other young quarterbacks, such as Chris Simms and Bruce Gradkowski, had trying to learn his offense?

A. Gruden overloads the brain, but he does it differently. They have so many plays, there's so much volume. The nomenclature is so intense in that offense that it takes a lot. Different beast. In mine, so much had to be done at the line of scrimmage. For a rookie or second year quarterback to do, it was virtually impossible.

Q. Not only that, but you had some competition at quarterback with Craig Erickson and Casey Weldon. Did having to look over your shoulder hinder your progress in any way?

A. I never looked over my shoulder. Not one time. I admired Craig greatly. He was a big help to me and had a big impact on my career. I didn't realize it until later, but he taught me how to work. I became known as a film junkie, and if not the hardest, one of the hardest working quarterbacks in the league in the film room. I learned that from Craig. I got pulled a couple of times for bad performances, but there was never a doubt in my mind, or really anybody else's, that when this thing took shape that I was going to be the quarterback.

Q. Can you describe the impact of Tony Dungy's hiring as head coach on the franchise as well as on your career?

A. I think Tony brought stability. He simplified things. He changed the culture of the organization more than anything else. You know, Sam wasn't to blame for everything. He didn't have a full deck of cards to work with. Tony got more involved on the personnel side of things. We got better people. Not that we were great, but we got better. Tony really knew how to develop a player. He could take a Shelton Quarles, who was an undrafted free agent, and turn him into a starting player. He could take a Derrick Brooks, who was a very good college player, and turn him into an 11-time Pro Bowler. He could take a John Lynch, who Sam Wyche almost wanted to cut, and turn him into a 9-time Pro Bowler. So Tony and his staff knew how to develop players, and they did the same with me. Not to the extent that they did with guys on the defensive side of the ball, but they still knew how to develop a player.

Q. In 1997, the Bucs got off to a 5-0 start and earned a playoff berth. What was that taste of success like after a rough start to your career?

A. Well, we really started having success at the end of 1996. We started out 1-8, and then we won a bunch of games late in the season. That did worlds for carry-over, momentum, and confidence building. We went into 1997 feeling we were a good football team. We had some success offensively, not lighting up the scoreboard, but felt like we did what we were asked to do. I was playing the best football of my career to that point. We had direction. We had clear, concise expectations. I'm very proud of that season. Especially John Lynch and myself, who were here for those two years with Sam Wyche just being awful. John and I took a walk this morning on Bayshore and talked about how we look back and those are some of the proudest years of our lives.

Q. Lynch points to a game against San Diego in 1996 as the real turning point for the franchise. Do you agree?

A. I really believe it was in 1996 during that game in San Diego. How we won it, coming back, making big plays to get us there, going across the country and winning on the road. So many elements of that game really did change the mentality of our team.

Q. By 1998, you were no longer a surprise. Teams didn't look past the Buccaneers, and you missed the playoffs at 8-8. What happened that season?

A. Huge disappointment, probably the most disappointing year of my career for two reasons. One, I got blamed for it. There's no doubt at the end of the year who the fall guy was: me. I never said this publicly, but I thought it was very unfair and not justified. Our defense was not nearly as good that year. They lost a lot of games for us late in the game. You can't say that when you're playing with them at the time. Our defense really underachieved, but they had developed this status here in Tampa. Nobody wanted to blame the defense, so it went directly towards me. I really feel like the coaching staff and the team threw me under the bus in that situation. Nobody came to my defense or our offense's defense. Without a doubt the worst experience I had in the NFL was 1998 and the off-season because the entire organization completely threw me under the bus.

Q. The following season, the Bucs got off to a bit of a slow start -

A. I didn't help the cause. I threw three interceptions in the opener against the Giants. They had 130 total yards of offense and we lost. I had every opportunity to erase 1998 in that first week of the season and I didn't. From that point on, no matter what happened, people weren't going to look past 1998 and the first week of 1999. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end of my career in Tampa. Even though I went on to play great football after my benching, won four of five games and got us to where we were going before my injury, nobody was ever willing to see me as the guy who was going to take the Bucs to the Super Bowl. The beginning of the season, though, that was all on me.

Q. You had started playing really well midway through the season. People forget that because you were replaced by Shaun King and that situation took on a life of its own.

A. He was the new fresh face and people started to forget about the beginning of 1999. I get it now. I have a much broader perspective on how this league works: perception is reality. At the time it was ridiculous because all you had to do was turn on the tape and watch me play in that five game span and watch Shaun play. It was like watching a college quarterback and a pro quarterback. People looked past that. He was a local kid, and our defense was winning games. It was as hot as it has ever been. I'm not really bitter about that because I'm the one that set the table in 1999 with the opening game. I get that. It could have been handled better by the organization. They could have given me a chance to be here longer. After the season, they had to buy back two years of my contract, which was for eight years. I think it was a $5 million buy-back, on top of my base salary. The way it has been explained to me is that it was a financial decision. Shaun was making a couple hundred grand and I was making close to $6 million a year. I understand that, but it was more a p.r. decision. That's been admitted to me since, but it allowed me to make a move and go into free agency.

Q. Did you feel there was unfinished business in Tampa or were you just ready to turn the page?

A. No, I really did. To this day, I have great pride in what we were able to accomplish, taking them from the Yucks to the Bucs as we know them now. I always really deep down wanted to finish what I started. There was regret leaving because I knew this team was close and that we would have a chance down the stretch.

Q. The next year in Baltimore, you replaced Tony Banks at quarterback and end up here playing for the championship. Was it the ultimate vindication?

A. As I look back, obviously it was appropriate to a certain degree. I thought it was most appropriate that we came here as a Baltimore Ravens team, with me as the quarterback, and won the Super Bowl in the fashion we had always said we were going to win it here in Tampa.

Q. Final thoughts on the Tampa Bay years? Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott, John Lynch, Tony Dungy, are all retired now. What are your reflections on the guys you played with and your time here.

A. And Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks, of course. I saw Sapp the other night, and Brad Culpepper, and said the one thing about this group of guys, is that in our time here we all developed really big football IQ’s. Coach Dungy and his staff made us smart football players. We did things right, both on the field and off the field. When I think about those guys, you know they were great teammates and we're still great friends, but we've all had a lasting impact on the league in mentoring guys, teaching other guys how to play the game the right way. Now, most of us work in television. You'll see Ronde and Derrick on TV, and Lynch is getting ready to go on TV too. Most of our expertise comes from our training by Coach Dungy. We've been able to impact the guy beyond just our years in Tampa. I think that says something about Coach Dungy, his staff, and how they trained us.

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