Early in the fourth quarter, Trent Dilfer made a play that cost his team a victory. Ultimately, he might pay for that mistake with his job. Dilfer had thrown two interceptions - including one that was returned for touchdown - and his first-quarter fumble was returned for the New York Giants' first score Sunday. But Dilfer saved his worst for last with 12 minutes left. Rolling left, then right, then circling left again, he seemingly planted one foot out of bounds and floated a wounded duck downfield that was intercepted by safety Percy Ellsworth.
Until Dilfer's meltdown in the Bucs' 17-13 loss, coach Tony Dungy didn't have many answers Sunday.
He didn't know what happened to the effort that produced a 4-0 preseason. He didn't know what became of his running attack. And he didn't know how a Giants team that could barely scratch out a first down had taken the lead. He didn't even know that Dilfer was close enough to the sideline that replay might have reversed the ill-fated interception.
But Dungy knew one thing: He finally had seen enough of Dilfer.
Maybe for a while. Dilfer was benched after his third interception - miscues by the maligned quarterback led directly to all the Giants' points.
Dungy refused to name Dilfer the starter for Sunday's game at Philadelphia and ended his news conference by abruptly announcing he would field no more questions about his wobbly quarterback.
"We will make that determination on the quarterback later in the week. That's all I'm going to say about the situation," Dungy said. "It's going to be my call and we'll decide it next week."
If Dungy is leaning toward sticking with Dilfer, it's only because backup Eric Zeier did nothing to convince him otherwise.
Zeier was 3-for-11 for 14 yards and was intercepted on the Bucs' final play when his fourth-and-2 pass bounced off Bert Emanuel's hands and was deflected to Phillippi Sparks with 1:17 left.
A few plays earlier, the Bucs nearly pulled out a win when Jacquez Green returned a punt 78 yards to the Giants' 7. But the play was negated when safety Damien Robinson was penalized for an illegal block in the back.
Dilfer essentially took the blame for the loss and was at a loss to explain his performance in the second half.
"I think the mistakes I made can be explained that I'm trying to do too much," Dilfer said. "A lot of times, as a quarterback, when you make decisions, you go with them. A lot of times you look like a genius and other times you look like a butt. I know, especially the second interception, I looked like a butt."
Dilfer wasted the second-best performance by a Bucs defense. Tampa Bay held the Giants to 107 total yards - 27 rushing - and tied a club record by allowing four first downs. In fact, the Giants didn't move the chains until 5:14 remained in the first half.
The Giants converted just 1 of 14 third-down situations, marking the stingiest percentage (7.1) by a Bucs defense.
Dilfer, who had not been benched because of his performance since Sam Wyche did it in the final game of '95, said he would accept any decision Dungy makes regarding who starts at Philadelphia.
"It's his decision," Dilfer said. "I've been in this business long enough to know that question is going to get asked, it's going to be a hot topic. That's his decision. I know I'll do everything to help our team get better and help myself get better. And whatever role I play, I'll give it 100 percent. Obviously, I want to be the starter. I have 15 games to make up for one bad one. That's how I look at it. Maybe I won't get that opportunity. If I don't, then I'll be the best backup I can be."
Dungy explained his decision to bench Dilfer after his third interception: "Trent wasn't throwing good balls and wasn't making good decisions. We thought Eric would come in and do that."
Alone in last place, the Bucs have nowhere to go but up. All four of the Bucs' NFC Central rivals won Sunday.
If not for the turnovers involving Dilfer, the defense would have pitched a shutout. The Giants scored on a 38-yard fumble return by Christian Peter after Dilfer was blindsided by linebacker Jessie Armstead.
The Bucs led 10-7 at the half on Martin Gramatica's 23-yard field goal and Dilfer's 1-yard TD pass to tight end Dave Moore. The play was set up by a 39-yard pass to Emanuel.
But the Bucs gave it all back in the second half. Dilfer's collapse began late in the third quarter when he threw high to an open Patrick Hape on second and 9 at the Tampa Bay 2. On the next play, he tried to hit Green on a slant and was intercepted by Andre Weathers, who returned it 8 yards for the go-ahead TD.
"I guess I missed him high," Dilfer said. "It came off my hand good, I thought. That one hurts as much as any of them because that's going to be a big play. He gets at least 20 yards. And the interception comes after it."
In the past three games against the Bucs, the Giants have 28 points - 25 as the result of Dilfer miscues.
"I think that's been one of the hardest things I've had to deal with as a quarterback of this football team," Dilfer said. "We've lost some games like this in the past when the defense has played A- plus football and you still lose, that's a difficult pill to swallow. It's difficult to look those guys in the eye knowing you let not only them down, but everybody else on your team down. I have to do it. I'm not going to quit."
After Sunday's performance, Dilfer's quarterback rating was 37. But most of his teammates said they stood behind him.
"I'm starting Trent," guard Frank Middleton said. "If we're in the third game and he's thrown 10 picks, then okay. Right now, one bad game doesn't make him a bad player."
Dungy said he hopes Sunday's loss does not rip apart his team.
"You can go one of two ways," Dungy said. "You can disintegrate and point fingers and feel sorry for yourself and get frustrated at each other. Or you can take that frustration and put it to good use next week."
Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 1999