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On a blistering spring afternoon at Tampa Bay's training
facility, Trent Dilfer grabs a seat in the shade, tucks a wad of
tobacco inside his right cheek, finds a paper cup to use as a
spittoon--"Excuse the habit," he says politely--and cheerfully
discusses last year's train wreck of a season. "I hope I'm not
looked at as a bad quarterback," he says. "I'm an inexperienced
quarterback, and there's a humongous difference between the two."

Dilfer was the 30th-ranked starting quarterback in the league
last year (he threw just four TD passes, the lowest total ever
for a quarterback with at least 400 attempts, against 18
interceptions), but he has the full support of new Buccaneers
coach Tony Dungy and G.M. Rich McKay, in part because he is now
a year older and 16 games wiser. And he is still the same
athlete teams drooled over before the '94 draft, in which the
Bucs picked the Fresno State star sixth overall (Washington took
Heath Shuler third). "He's a big kid with a big arm, and he's
smart," McKay says of Dilfer. "There's not much missing. That's
why he should succeed."

So what went wrong last year? For starters, the 24-year-old
Dilfer became the No. 1 QB before he was ready. He received
scant playing time as a rookie in '94, but the kid with the
$16.5 million arm and the eight-year contract was handed the job
after starter Craig Erickson was traded to Indianapolis in April

Dilfer also struggled with coach Sam Wyche's hurry-up offense,
which he found as complicated as quantum physics. "I don't think
the offense suited the personnel. The main person it did not
suit was me," he says with a laugh. He wasn't comfortable with
Wyche's five- to seven-step drop plays because he had been a
three- to five-step drop passer his whole career. And defenses
took advantage of the Bucs' injury-depleted offensive line by
relentlessly blitzing the callow quarterback. Wyche became
frustrated with Dilfer's performance, while Dilfer became
frustrated with Wyche's game plan. All of the above helped
contribute to the quarterback's being sacked 47 times (the
second-highest total in the league)--and the coach's being
sacked four days after the season finale.

Dilfer, that brash kid who once boasted that he would break Drew
Bledsoe's rookie records, says he believes this season will be
different. Dungy and offensive coordinator Mike Shula have
installed a simpler system with an emphasis on the running game
and a passing attack that will feature short drops, quick dumps
and timed throws. "My confidence is not shaken," says Dilfer,
his right cheek now deflated, the makeshift spittoon now half
full. "When I look back at my career in 12 to 14 years, I will
look at that season and point to the lessons I learned. That
experience was invaluable."

--Kelly Whiteside

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Dilfer embraces the new regime's scheme. [Trent Dilfer]