Dilfer: Aberration or rejuvenation?
Hey, guv, don't bother to call. Trent Dilfer is self-reprieved, juking the Bucs' guillotine. Tampa Bay's embattled, perhaps- indefatigable quarterback took gritty, gutty strides into the Louisiana Superdome, knowing it was Last Chance Sunday. Dilfer was a non-drinker, non-smoker, non-curser, non-carouser in desperate need of a definitive Bourbon Street statement of pro football rebirth. "If we don't come out offensively, take control ... win the game,"

Trent would say, "in my book, it's over for me for sure." Snake eyes, he's history. Rolling the NFL dice in riverboat country, in a Christian sort of way, Dilfer was solid and efficient, floating as artistic a 62-yard bomb to Jacquez Green as a Favre or Marino could ever throw, a precursor to a flurry of pluses during No. 12's three- TD afternoon. Aberration or rejuvenation?

Dilfer eschewed errors against the motley Saints, playing with uncharacteristic calm, making astute judgments and triggering a 31-16 win, earning restoration as Tony Dungy's starter. No matter, frankly, the health of Eric Zeier's ribs.

"I didn't go in trying to get my job back," Dilfer said. But that's precisely what he did. Even if Zeier heals before Sunday's date with Kansas City, there is's no way Dungy could follow the New Orleans dynamics with a Dilfer rebenching. "We needed this offensively, to score some points with our passing game," Dilfer said. "I told myself, I'm going to trust whoever's in the game. Jacquez and I had been hot all week in practice, with maybe 10 long touchdown throws. But it didn't matter until we did it for real. "

That deep ball to Jacquez helped us in many ways. It was gigantic. One of the bright spots this season has been that we've shown a lot more (creativity) in play calls. But until they connect, who would accept that? "Darnell McDonald made a fabulous read and adjustment on a critical third-down pass, then later he made a terrific catch in the end zone. As he matures, it brings aboard a nice big target."

Dilfer was smiling, not gloating. Two weeks ago, a lot of media voices, including mine, shouted for Trent's unplugging. Dungy did it. Right move. Maybe, having watched from offstage in Detroit, for the first time in his six NFL seasons, there was a needed rewrite of the Dilfer constitution. "I've been hurt," he admitted. "Pain is real. A lot of it deserved. I've tried to not be bitter. People who become bitter wind up being hurt the most. Most of all, I've tried to let God further develop my character." There was a satisfied calm. "Two people told me during the past week that I looked so relaxed," said the tough guy from Fresno State. "I don't feel that way. Maybe it's something subconscious. I've felt tight before one game this year, against the Bears. Maybe it was because I thought we should blow them out. I made some bad plays."

He had a death-row feeling. Even as Sunday's starter. "Maybe I wouldn't have been pulled," Dilfer said, considering if this opportunity had gone sour, "but everybody else in the world, including my teammates, would've been somewhere else."

Remarkable how success, even against a weak enemy, can relight flames. Dilfer knew the Bucs had it locked when Mike Alstott crunched 25 yards for a touchdown, just 15 seconds from the end. Dilfer looked to the heavens, firing make-believe six- shooters of glory. Before the clock hit zeros, Dilfer exchanged a power handshake with safety John Lynch. He high-fived tight end John Davis, who caught a scoring pass. He had a warm one-on-one conversation with Zeier.

After the game, Dilfer sprinted onto the field, locating Saints coach Mike Ditka amid the usual friendly end- of-work clamor. Ditka slapped Trent on the back. Dilfer then hooked up for chats with New Orleans quarterbacks Billy Joe Tolliver, Billy Joe Hobert and Danny "Billy Joe" Wuerffel. Saints cornerback Ashley Ambrose sought out Tampa Bay's happy pitcher. "That was a great throw," he said of the magic rainbow to Green. Ambrose was the defender beaten on the play. "It was perfect."

Best of Trent's career, probably. New Orleans punter Tommy Barnhardt, who last season worked for the Bucs, gave Trent a hug and said, "Good job. You looked really good." A year ago, Tampa Bay came here and botched a 9- 3 game against equally inept, similarly beatable Saints. If there'd been a repeat, Dilfer would this morning be thinking of playing elsewhere in 2000, after the Bucs fired him, and Tampa Bay's playoff chances would be all but fodder for The Bone Collector.

Amazingly, here in the Big Easy Dome, where the Bucs achieved their first victory in 1977, they had messed up nine straight since 1982. Last time, the final chance to pull out 10-9 survival against the Saints perished when the same Jacquez Green dropped a pass from the same Trent Dilfer. "I've never been more ashamed of myself and our offense that when we left New Orleans last season," Dilfer said. On this Sunday, he left not with a broken heart but with a growling stomach. "Where's the food?" Trent asked defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who usually knows. "I hear they've got some ribs for us."

Should I make an Eric Zeier joke? Nah, No. 12 earned better than that.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1999