Dilfer puts a shine on this finish
Trent Dilfer had been booed before. He had been knocked out with a concussion. He had been given the vaudeville hook twice this year by his head coach.
This was different. Minnesota Vikings defensive back Corey Fuller was salivating at the prospect of intercepting the Bucs' young quarterback. Dilfer was trying to save face.
"He spit in my face," Dilfer said of Fuller. "He flat out spit in my face. He came up to me before the game and said, `Throw to me, throw to me, throw to me.' I said, `I will, don't worry about it.' We ran some kind of play where we beat him underneath and he came right up to me and spit in my face."
Dilfer played like a polished veteran - spit-shined, if you will - in completing 24 of 37 passes for 249 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
In a game in which the Bucs had nowhere to run, Dilfer had no way to hide.
His clutch passing, which included picking up 13 of the Bucs' 19 first downs through the air, was in contrast to subpar performances which saw him fail to finish games against Chicago, Carolina and Cincinnati.
"This guy, in time, is going to be a big-time star," Bucs coach Sam Wyche said of Dilfer. "There are very few who come out opening day and peak. It doesn't happen. Every week, something new happens for him. I'm so proud of him, I don't know what to do. There were a lot of critics in the stands, let's face it. They were waiting to see if things didn't go right to voice their opinion. There was a lot weighing on him and he came through."
Dilfer did it with virtually no ground support. The Bucs entered the game 28th in the NFL in scoring and total offense. But the staple of their attack had been the running of tailback Errict Rhett. Playing eight- and nine-man defensive fronts, the Vikings held Rhett to just 42 yards in 22 carries (1.9 yards per carry).
On half of Rhett's carries he was stopped for no gain or dropped for a loss. The losses totaled 19 yards.
"Our running game is good, we've just got to get it back on track," Rhett said. "I got started good in this game. I got started early, then I don't know what happened. It's frustrating."
The Bucs won despite the offense supplying just one touchdown for the fourth time in seven games. Sunday's TD came on the opening drive, a 71-yard march capped by Rhett's 6-yard run. Dilfer set the tone by completing four passes on the drive, including a 10-yarder to Alvin Harper on third down.
"We weren't going to run against Minnesota," Wyche said. "They had eight- and nine-men fronts. You're beating your head against the wall. If they're going to take that away, you take what they give you. They did not give us the run, they gave us the pass and we did enough."
All week Dilfer worked on unloading the ball under pressure, particularly using short passes. It paid off as he spread the ball to eight receivers.
"We have a young quarterback and most teams are going to say we're going to make this young quarterback beat us," guard Ian Beckles said. "I did see (Dilfer) mature a little bit. He took over today and was a little more vocal."
For Dilfer, who had not finished three of his past four games, the overtime hours were a blessing. "I was finishing this game no matter what," Dilfer said. "My knee kind of got tweaked and I said there's no way I'm coming out. I don't care if he calls a rollout pass, I'm doing it. Maybe that's selfish. But I had to be in this game and play the whole game. I don't want to get too excited, but I think I might have made it to that next level. That step might not be huge."
Wyche put the victory in perspective, especially what it meant to the offense. "We're 5-2 and there's a lot of football left," Wyche said. "But for the moment, if you take a balance sheet on this team, we're finding a way to win and watching an offense built around the quarterback get better. It's not getting worse."
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1995