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
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
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
Added Dilfer, "We could've knelt on the ball all day long and
With his season over and his future uncertain, Dilfer--who will
become a free agent unless the Bucs elect to exercise a $4.2
million option early next year--returned to the sideline late in
the third quarter with his right arm in a sling and settled into
his new role as cheerleader. Light-headed from the Vicodin he was
given for his aching collarbone, Dilfer chatted up King like a
morning radio deejay. Finally, during a Seahawks timeout with
3:22 remaining, Dilfer crossed the line. "Shaun," Dilfer said,
almost panting, "you've got to work the clock. Milk it for all
"Trent," King shot back, "will you please chill?" Dilfer
flinched, then looked back at King. "I've got it under control,"
The Bucs hope it stays that way.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER Crunch time Brooks and the Bucs defense sacked Kitna three times and picked off five of his passes.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Mr. Cool King, who threw the touchdown pass that gave the Buccaneers a 10-point lead, at times looked like anything but a rookie.
When the light-headed Dilfer started rambling, King shot back,
"Will you please chill? I've got it under control."