Trent Dilfer joined the Baltimore Ravens this year after six seasons with the Buccaneers
When, on January 25, 2000, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose not to exercise a final, two-year contract option on quarterback Trent Dilfer, there was no question he would be moving on to a new NFL address. Who would have dared to predict, at that moment, that Dilfer would make a triumphant return just one year later, almost exactly to the day?
After six seasons with the Buccaneers, Dilfer has opened a second chapter in his NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens. While the plot in Tampa never reached the conclusion that he and a hopeful Buccaneer fan base coveted, it has taken him only one season in a Ravens uniform to write, potentially, the happiest possible ending.
Dilfer and the Ravens are 60 minutes from the ultimate goal of every NFL player, the Super Bowl championship. Only the New York Giants will stand in the way when the former Buccaneer leads his Ravens squad onto the familiar Raymond James Stadium turf next Sunday for Super Bowl XXXV. Dilfer has been at the helm of the Ravens' offense since the end of October and has helped his new club win 10 consecutive games. He also won his last four games in Raymond James, last losing, coincidentally, to the Giants on the opening weekend of 1999.
On Friday, Dilfer granted an exclusive interview to Buccaneers.com, less than 72 hours before he would arrive back in Tampa. Dilfer may not buy into any of the dramatic story lines of that return – Redemption! Revenge! Rebirth! – but he does admit that the curiously poetic site of the game adds meaning to his first Super Bowl appearance.
"To a certain degree it does, just because there are so many people in that city that I care deeply for, and so many great memories of my time there," said Dilfer. "It's a place where I really grew as a person. Any time you go back to a place that's had significance like that, it carries a certain value to it."
Whether or not it matches the bent of last year's public opinion, Dilfer now seems to have overwhelming support in his original NFL city. That certainly holds true within Buccaneer headquarters, where he left quite a few friends, not to mention many who admired his professional approach.
"I've really always believed that how you treat people is more important than what you do, necessarily," said Dilfer. "I tried very hard through the good and the bad times to treat people with a great deal of respect, to not get caught up in a lot of the negativity that was going on and to choose to look at the positives more than the negatives.
"I think things that people thought bothered me, they just weren't issues to me because I tended to see the big picture. I know this is a league of overreaction, so when we didn't meet people's expectations, obviously they're going to overreact in a negative way. When things went well, they were going to overreact in a positive way and say that we should win the Super Bowl and anything less than that would be a failure. So I just always tried to keep the big-picture perspective, and because of that I could appreciate people and not get caught up in the negativity that surrounded me at times."
Dilfer's professional approach in Tampa extended to his dealings with the media, a group he treated not only with courtesy but, often, with surprising openness. Sometimes his willing introspection led to descriptions of him that didn't necessarily ring true.
When he opened up to Sports Illustrated in 1997 about his constant focus on self-improvement, he was painted broadly as an over-emotional player desperate for his teammates' approval. Two years later, just before a broken collarbone ended his last stand with the Bucs in 1999, he allowed his frustrations to boil over with another SI writer and was briefly labeled a malcontent (an occurrence that, though he felt was overblown, still troubled him deeply as he did not want to become a distraction to new starter Shaun King).
So now Dilfer, facing the most concentrated media attention of his career, has landed in Sports Illustrated again on the eve of the Super Bowl and he's been labeled once more. This time, he's portrayed as a quarterback completely unconcerned with his own stats, with his popularity among fans, with the appearance of his game, with…well, everything, really, except for winning. Has he been oversimplified once again?
"No," said Dilfer, quite emphatically. "And I've always been this way, and maybe this is why I've been misunderstood at times.
"I grew up at a very young age around football coaches and around the purity of the game. I learned to appreciate that it was a team sport and that different aspects of offense complement your defense, and certain aspects of defense complement your offense. Obviously special teams fits in there. I always wanted to become a quarterback that just simply won and did whatever I could, the things that nobody sees to help win the game.
"Stats have become so huge these days with your fantasy leagues and all the different things. People get so involved in stats that they have become almost bigger than winning, and that's really a shame because it has taken away from the purity of the game. I don't care and I never cared in Tampa. I do believe there are times that, to win football games, your quarterback has to put up big numbers. I'm not saying you can win every game with 165 yards passing, but you've got to play the position based on the profile of the game. I don't care if anybody ever picks me for their fantasy football team as long as, at the end of the show, we're holding the Lombardi Trophy."
Dilfer may have envisioned that moment in years past, when the 'we' referred to the Buccaneers, who made him the sixth overall pick in the 1994 draft and the team's starter in '95. He went on to start 70 consecutive games, help the Bucs to their first playoff appearance in 15 years in 1997, land in the Pro Bowl that same year and accompany the team to the NFC Championship Game last season, albeit with the sideline role of an injured player.
But he is a Raven now, and judging from the comments of his teammates in recent weeks, a very popular one at that. The Baltimore locker room has rallied around him thanks to his obvious obsession with winning.
"I would choose to believe that I was popular in the locker room (in Tampa), too, because of the passion I showed for the game of football," said Dilfer. "I think that one thing that happens, though, is that when you're with a certain amount of people for a certain amount of time, you're going to start rubbing some people the wrong way just as some people are going to rub you the wrong way. It's still all (jokes) and giggles here because, obviously, we've won 10 in a row and are going to the Super Bowl.
"You can't get too caught up in what people think about you. You have to make sure that your ambition is to do the job the best you can and hope and trust that people will judge you for that. I haven't prepared any harder than I ever did in Tampa. I think the people that chose to know me the best in Tampa – your John Lynches, Ronde Barbers, Mike Alstotts, Dave Moores, guys like that – the first thing they're going to tell you is that nobody prepared harder to win than I did. That's why they were always with me during the hard times. People that chose not to look at that obviously are going to have a different opinion than that, and that's their agenda."
He has certainly been judged well in Baltimore, and not merely because of the Ravens' advancement to the Super Bowl, though that obviously hasn't hurt. Dilfer helped Baltimore avoid a potential tailspin in October, when a sputtering offense failed to score a touchdown for five straight games and nearly derailed the Herculean efforts of the Ravens' defense. He has been a media darling ever since.
"I can't explain that all the time," said Dilfer, in a manner that made it clear that he doesn't necessarily care to explain it. "I think people here have made a point of it, so it's become more recognizable, maybe more appreciated. Does that mean it was done wrong in Tampa? I don't believe so. That's just the way it was done and everybody has a different approach. I just try never to get concerned about it one way or the other."
In his absence, the Buccaneers continued to win in 2000, though an overtime loss in the season finale at Green Bay denied them an NFC Central title repeat and a subsequent playoff loss at Philadelphia ended their season prematurely. King took over the reins from Dilfer permanently and produced numbers within the framework of the Bucs' offense that, by season's ends, where very similar to what his predecessor was doing in Baltimore. King compiled a passer rating of 75.8 and threw 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 16 starts. Dilfer put up a 76.6 rating and tossed 12 touchdowns and 11 picks in eight starts.
Dilfer was pleased that both his former and current teams remained among the league's best.
"I was rooting for them," he said. "I talked to Alstott and Lynch and those guys constantly. I was excited for them when they were succeeding and I hurt for them when they lost. I never wanted to see them fail. I simply wanted to see my friends and people I'm close to have success because I feel like I was a part of that success.
"I was treated first-class by everybody in Tampa and I want nothing but the best things for them. I have a great deal of respect for the Glazer family, for Rich McKay, obviously, and for the Tony Dungy and his staff. I couldn't wish anything but good things for them."