"I am an open book," says Trent Dilfer, sitting in a darkened
golf clubhouse dining room. It is well past midnight and the
chef, waiters, busboys and dishwashers are long gone. He pauses
a moment--a rare occurrence for the NFL's most talkative
quarterback--and then goes back to spewing self-reflective
Dilfer, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quote machine, is an open
book, sort of a cross between War and Peace and I'm OK, You're
OK. In a world in which athletes are analyzed and criticized
with increasing fervor, Dilfer, probably the league's most
maligned quarterback over the past three seasons, is more than
happy to do the job on himself. "I've been ridiculed, ripped and
mocked," he says. "I became a joke around the league because I
threw four touchdown passes and 18 interceptions in an entire
season . And I laughed, too, because it was funny--four
touchdown passes!--and because it'll never happen again." (We
interrupt to note that Dilfer takes a breath, albeit a quick
one, before continuing.) "I enjoy talking to the media. I do a
lot of thinking, and doing an interview helps me sort out my
thoughts. For the most part, I don't blame the media for ripping
me because if I was in the media, I would've been all over me,
No columnist or talk-show host could be as hard on Dilfer as
Dilfer is on Dilfer. Yet, paradoxically, he is brimming with
self-confidence as he contemplates the season ahead. He
blossomed into an effective passer during the final 11 games of
1996, leading the Bucs to a 6-5 record over that stretch (chart,
page 58) and positioning himself as a man on the verge of a
nervous breakthrough. "I have the physical skills to play at the
highest level," he says. "The reason I haven't succeeded is that
I'm not there mentally. People think I'm a nut. How many people
pray before a big third down? I pray for poise and confidence
because I believe that when I'm poised and confident, I can't be
Just ask the scouts who saw Dilfer execute a pro-style offense
to perfection at Fresno State. During his junior year, in 1993,
he set an NCAA record by throwing 318 passes without being
intercepted, and he finished the season with 28 touchdowns and
only four interceptions.
The next spring Dilfer entered the NFL draft and was selected by
Tampa Bay with the sixth pick. He was hailed as a savior and
signed to an eight-year, $16.5 million contract, but in his
rookie season he belly flopped like Nate Newton going off the
high dive. Dilfer's first pro start came in October 1994, when
coach Sam Wyche decided to sit down the Bucs' regular
quarterback, Craig Erickson, to take a look at Dilfer. Tampa Bay
was playing the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park, which
is about 50 miles from Dilfer's hometown of Aptos, Calif.
Approximately 500 of Dilfer's friends and relatives attended
that game and watched him complete seven of 23 passes for 45
yards in a 41-16 loss. After seeing limited duty in four other
games, Dilfer finished his first year with six interceptions
against one touchdown pass.
After the season the Bucs shipped the popular Erickson to the
Indianapolis Colts, effectively giving Dilfer the starting job.
In 1995 he put together one of the worst seasons in NFL history,
becoming only the fourth quarterback to throw just four
touchdowns while attempting at least 300 passes. He also engaged
in a messy feud with Wyche, who was fired at season's end.
Dilfer started 16 games but was benched four times by Wyche, who
inserted backup Casey Weldon on each occasion. Dilfer responded
by publicly questioning Wyche's offense and leadership. "I
sensed a guy that was drowning that year," Tampa Bay general
manager Rich McKay says of Dilfer. "Every incomplete pass was a
disaster--he'd throw his helmet--and you could see the pressure
was getting to him."
In those days Dilfer's legion of critics ranged from Fox TV's
Terry Bradshaw and NBC's Mike Ditka to various players. "I'd be
at a golf tournament or some other function," Dilfer says, "and
conversations would stop when I got near."
When second-year Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer hired Tony Dungy to
replace Wyche in January 1996, Dilfer seemed to be a prime
candidate for sacrifice. Had Dungy brought in his own
quarterback, there would have been little protest. But Dungy,
who as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator in '94 and
'95 had faced Dilfer three times, admired Dilfer's arm and
toughness. He also flashed back to his days as a Pittsburgh
Steelers defensive back in the late '70s and thought of
Bradshaw, a No. 1 overall pick who shook off some bad early
years to become a four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback and a
Hall of Famer. "When I got to Pittsburgh in 1977, he was a
hero," Dungy says of Bradshaw. "But I remember when he was booed
coming off the field, and the fans cheered when he got hurt.
People forget that Joe Gilliam was the starter at the beginning
of the Steelers' first Super Bowl season ."
A few days after taking the Tampa Bay job, Dungy called Dilfer
into his office for what Dungy thought would be a brief meeting.
They talked for an hour--or, more accurately, Dilfer talked and
Dungy listened. When Dungy finally got a few words in, he told
Dilfer that he would have to compete for the starting job in
training camp but that whoever won it would remain the starter
for the entire season. "I was shocked," Dilfer says. "I went
from having the job handed to me at the expense of a guy
[Erickson] who was a better player at the time to having to
compete with a guy [Weldon] who's not as good as I am."
Dilfer remains a huge admirer of Erickson, who played well with
the Bucs and gained the support of his teammates. There was
locker-room resentment of Dilfer not only because he displaced
Erickson but also because he led a tame life.
A self-described party animal in high school and early in
college, Dilfer became a born-again Christian the summer before
his sophomore year, around the time he began dating a Fresno
State classmate, swimmer Cassandra Franzman. The two married in
July 1993 and have seldom indulged in more than a glass or two
of wine at dinner since. "I've been criticized by teammates for
not going to bars and not carousing," Dilfer says. "Right after
they traded Craig, it got back to me that one of my teammates
was saying, 'Craig would buy drinks for the whole team and party
all night. He was one of the guys. Trent won't even go to a bar.
How can you be a leader and not go out with the guys?'"
This is a sensitive issue for Dilfer. It often takes him an hour
or two to fall asleep after he goes to bed, and among his
restless musings is a gnawing desire to be embraced by his
teammates. "I don't think even my wife knows this, but I sit up
at night thinking about how badly I want them to love me," he
says. "Maybe it's the little boy inside me, but I want each of
them to say, 'There's nobody in the world I'd rather have on
that field with me than Trent.'"
Dilfer tagged along to bars on a few occasions in 1995, but, he
says, "I felt very uncomfortable. There was a period when I
tried to be somebody I wasn't."
Says Cassandra, "He drew the line at going to strip joints, but
there were times when we put ourselves in places that weren't
right for us, probably more to be accepted than anything."
Staying true to his convictions is only one of many self-help
strategies Dilfer has developed during his pro career. Don't ask
him to list his weaknesses unless you have an hour to spare. His
--Immaturity. "I just didn't handle adversity very well," he
says. "When things were going bad, I didn't know how to pull
myself out of it. Having a baby [his and Cassandra's daughter,
Madeleine, is 15 months old] helped." Dilfer is especially
remorseful over the comments he made about Wyche, who later
publicly questioned Dilfer's work ethic but nonetheless praised
his ability to Dungy. "I took the low road, and I was wrong,"
Dilfer says. "Were some of the things I said justified?
Absolutely. Should I have said them? Absolutely not. Sam gave me
chances I didn't deserve, and I hurt him."
--Selfishness. "I've always been a team guy, but several times I
felt what was best for me was best for the team."
--Pride. "It can keep you from learning about yourself and
--Failure to follow through. "A lot of times I had good
intentions to do something, like help a receiver after practice,
but I'd get distracted."
--Lacking perspective. "I thought if I looked forward to success,
it would just happen, and I was unprepared."
--Being too emotional. "I fight a constant battle: In college I
had no problem ripping out a guy's throat if he screwed up, but
that doesn't work in the pros. Sometimes I'm an emotional wreck.
My goal is to be a straight line."
Dilfer kept himself together during the Bucs' 0-5 start last
season, even though he threw only one touchdown against 10
interceptions. Dungy kept his word and stuck with Dilfer, whose
efforts to improve his footwork began to pay off in increased
passing accuracy in Tampa Bay's sixth game, against Minnesota.
Dilfer went 22 for 35 with three touchdown passes and no
interceptions in the Bucs' 24-13 victory over the Vikings. From
that game on he threw 11 touchdowns against nine interceptions.
All signs point to a healthy career for Dilfer, but he has
larger goals. "I plan to become great," he says, "but how can
you appreciate greatness if you've never experienced the worst?
I would not change one thing about the last three years because
the adversity has made me such a better person and football
Dilfer likens the Bucs' situation to that of the Green Bay
Packers three years ago. In 1994 Brett Favre had his
breakthrough season; now Favre is a two-time MVP and the Packers
are Super Bowl champions. At least one Green Bay player, All-Pro
strong safety LeRoy Butler, buys the comparison of Dilfer to
Favre. "Trent's a lot like Brett was when he came into the
league, kind of sporadic but very talented," says Butler. "His
arm is just as strong as Brett's, and a lot of his interceptions
have had to do with him forcing passes. He feels he has to hit
his receivers in the numbers--because he doesn't have confidence
yet that they'll lay out for him. I think he's going to be a
great quarterback, and I have a lot of respect for the way he
has fought through adversity."
Butler also believes it was significant that Dilfer, a scratch
golfer, won the Cadillac-NFL Classic, a tournament held in
conjunction with a Senior PGA Tour event last month in Clifton,
N.J. Dilfer also won a Celebrity Player Tour event in June. Says
Butler, "When you win under pressure, you gain the respect of
your teammates, and it shows that you're a leader."
Yet Dilfer knows the respect he craves can come only from
winning games. After tossing and turning in bed one night, he
watched an NFL Films tribute to Joe Montana in which former
49ers lineman Jesse Sapolu spoke of his affection for Montana.
Says Dilfer, "Jesse said that he's the greatest football player
of all time because he was Joe. Joe was Joe, and the 49ers loved
Dilfer's eyes well up, and he pauses. His hard swallow
reverberates through the room. "This is where it gets dangerous
for me," he says finally. "I want that kind of respect and
affection so bad that I try to make them happen, and you can't
do that. Joe never talked about it. It just happened."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK [Trent Dilfer and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Dilfer has gotten in the swing of winning at golf but is 13-21 as a starter for the Buccaneers. [Trent Dilfer playing golf]
Interceptions, not touchdowns, were the hallmark of Trent
Dilfer's career until the sixth game of last season, when he
suddenly became more accurate and led Tampa Bay to six wins in
its last 11 games.
Year Att. Comp. Yards Pct. TDs Int.
1994* 82 38 433 46.3 1 6
1995 415 224 2,774 54.0 4 18
1996 (games 1-5) 146 68 736 46.6 1 10
1996 (games 6-16) 336 199 2,123 59.2 11 9
Career Totals 979 529 6,066 54.0 17 43
* Played in only five games.