Plenty Bucs were at fault, but you can't blame Dilfer
While a renowned Tampa Bay defense was being uncharacteristically inefficient against the Vikings ... While heroic Bucs running back Mike Alstott was doing the ugly and unusual with third-and-short misfires plus a critical fumble .. While the team's highest-paid talent, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, was accomplishing absolutely nothing ...

Trent Dilfer, by far the most critically assailed among Tampa Bay pewter pirates, played like a champion at quarterback amid the smoke and failure of a 31-7 crackup in downtown Minneapolis on Sunday. "That may be the best Trent has (ever) played," Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "It's a weird feeling. A shame to see such a final score despite making a lot of good, solid, positive plays."

During the past month, it's been said a million times: If only No. 12 would perform adequately, the Bucs can become Super Bowl contenders. Sunday blew that argument. While so many supposedly solid Bucs elements crumbled around him, Dilfer stood tough in a raging Metrodome furnace, completing his first 11 passes in what became a 17-for-25 game, gaining 207 yards before being injured at third quarter's end. QB rating: 106.6.

"I couldn't care less about my stats," Dilfer said. "The only numbers I see right now are 0 and 1. It's my job to complete passes. I needed to be perfect. I wasn't good enough. No matter how well you move the ball, it's no good when the zero stays by your name for so long on the scoreboard."

Minnesota was scoring touchdowns, including two on Barnum & Bailey catches by controversial rookie Randy Moss. Tampa Bay's deficit mounted to 21-0. Alstott's fumble killed one promising drive. Another possession stalled and the Bucs again reaped nothing as Michael Husted blew a field goal. Murphy's Law was at work.

Late in the third quarter, Dilfer's accuracy would at last produce a seven-point dividend. Despite having just lost his new favorite receiver, as Bert Emanuel (seven catches, 98 yards) sprained an ankle, No. 12 completed throws to Alstott and tight end Dave Moore to fuel another threat. Trent's hunger was afire. Playing with the verve of a linebacker, he scrambled right to lower an ambitious QB shoulder into the belly of Corey Fuller, a cornerback from Minnesota who once spat in Dilfer's face. Trent's manly act was costly.

While gaining 3 yards to the Viking 3-yard line, his shoulder was smacked hard enough to come up throbbing. Worse yet, another defender came flying at Tampa Bay's quarterback. As he burrowed into Fuller, Trent was slammed by the helmet of a second enemy. Dilfer was wobbled but stayed on the field, soon to flick a touchdown pass to fullback Lorenzo Neal. But that was it.

Dilfer was hurried to Tampa Bay's dressing room. Medics examined his badly bruised thigh. Trent had them tape it up. He wanted more shots at the Vikings. It had become 21-7 and there was no quit in a quarterback who fantasized about a colossal comeback. "I wanted so badly to return, but I couldn't bend more than 10 or 15 degrees at the knee," he said. "We needed to throw lots of passes, trying to catch up. I couldn't do any good at planting to throw. Clearly, we would have a better chance with Steve Walsh at quarterback."

After the 24-point defeat, Dilfer was in street clothes. Sitting on a folding chair. His pants lowered, Trent had a huge ice bag planted on his left thigh. A pinch of snuff inserted in his firm lower lip, Dilfer wondered about next week, when the Tampa Bay road show makes another dramatic stop in Green Bay. "My thigh hurts a lot, but we have great team doctors and trainers," he said. "They, as well as I, will do everything humanly possible to get the leg ready for the Packers. Green Bay is still the team to beat, especially in our division.

"All the magazines and other media that tried to bury the Packers in preseason, they were baloney. There's no place tougher for an opponent than Lambeau Field. They have Brett Favre at quarterback and so many other well-proven, high-quality players. I love being in games at Green Bay, although my results there haven't been too great. I will do everything to answer the bell next Sunday. Our team has lots of character. This is a time when it must rise and stabilize us."

Sounding like a champ.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1998