Dilfer picks the worst time for his worst game
At a time such as this, it is easy to look at things negatively. In a self-immolation such as this, it is easy to look at Trent Dilfer and see only the bad. On the other hand, didn't he look nice standing on the sideline. He stood there at the 40, and it should be said that his posture was impeccable. His baseball cap was straight, and the white towel around his neck was clean. Yes, sir. No matter what the skeptics say, Dilfer found his place on Sunday afternoon. It was over there. On the other side of the plank.

Except for that, however, this was the worst. In a career that is covered with warts, this was the ugliest one he ever played. Worse than his first game ever, when he threw for all of 45 yards against the 49ers. Worse than his meltdown against the Vikings, when he ignored the playbook. Worse than his tantrum on the sideline against the Lions. Worse than the four picks he threw on Opening Day three years ago against Green Bay.

Compared to this, those days were afternoon strolls in the park smelling flowers. This was so ugly it made your eyes hurt to watch it. This was so ugly a dermatologist wouldn't treat it. This was Dilfer running wild, throwing blind, out of control and, perhaps, out of a job. How bad can a quarterback play? Against the Giants, Dilfer threw 17 points the other way. He had a fumble returned for a touchdown. He had an interception returned for a touchdown. He had an interception set up a field goal. He had another interception. He finished his afternoon with a nifty quarterback rating of 37.0.

Dilfer was so bad, in fact, that coach Tony Dungy pulled him. Other places, that is no big deal. Here, it never had happened with the game on the line. And all you could say when Dungy did it was "Hey, what took you so long?"

Now comes the big decision. Does Dungy go back to Dilfer? Or does he toss the keys to his offense to Eric Zeier already? After the game, Dungy said he wasn't sure. He said he was leaning toward Dilfer, but he wanted to watch the tapes, too. That says something about how bad Dilfer was. A few minutes later, when Dungy said he wouldn't answer any more questions about Dilfer, that spoke volumes, too. When things settle down, however, the Bucs will go back to Dilfer. It is too early to pull the rip cord. Not only that, but Zeier didn't exactly light it up, either. He was 3-for-11, and in four series he didn't make a first down.

This is the state of the union. The Bucs may or may not have a quarterback controversy. Or, they may or may not have a quarterback. So how does Dilfer come back from this? Already there was an incredible amount of pressure. Now it multiplies. It is like a man hanging from a cliff by one hand and deciding, as long as he's there, to pick up a few rocks to put his pocket. It's like a man in a hole wondering what happens if he digs a little deeper. "It's pretty bad," he said. "Because of the expectations, I can't remember a bigger letdown than this."

Dilfer was supposed to be beyond all of this. He was trimmer, more athletic, coming off a great preseason. He had his quarterback coach. He had the shotgun. He had receivers. He had good field position for the first half. Then came the second half, when he hit more Giant jerseys than Kent Graham. "It was awful. It was as ugly as it can get," quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. "I obviously didn't do a very good job getting him ready."

So can he come back from this? "He has to," Christensen said. "We've got a whole season ahead of us. He's come back from a lot already."

Still, the first game is a player's opening statement. Is this how Dilfer is going to be in his big year? Look, he always has been a criticism magnet, and many times it has been misplaced. But not Sunday. Sunday, he was terrible to the point he embarrassed those who defend him still. You want to know how bad it was? In the locker room, he refered to himself as "a total butt" for throwing his second interception. "The one for a touchdown?" someone asked. "No," he said. "That was the first."

"Did you think you were out of bounds on the second one?" "No, that was the third."

And so it went. Dilfer talked about the "inexcusable" pick and the "bonehead" pick and the "terrible" pick, until they were as blurry as this team's, and this quarterback's, future. For the record, Dilfer said he understood being pulled. He sounded like a fine, loyal soldier. But the Light Brigade was full of loyal soldiers, too, and they died bloody. Much of Dilfer's problems stemmed from his old habit of trying to do too much with a play. Twice, he broke containment and rolled around the backfield, only to throw to the wrong guys. Much of his problems, Christensen suspected, came when he missed Patrick Hape on a short pass. After that, Dilfer began to press, trying too hard to make something happen, getting reckless and careless and, above all, aimless.

This was inexcusable, unforgivable. With this game, Dilfer invited the pressure back. "That's what I get paid for," he said. "To deal with it."

No, Trent. What you get paid for is to turn it around. Sunday would have been a good time to start.

Gary Shelton , The St.Petersburg Times 1999