Back in control
To everyone else, it felt like Trent Dilfer was getting a second chance. To the Bucs quarterback, it felt like his last one. "If we don't come out offensively, take control, play well, win the game, in my book, it's over for me for sure," said Dilfer after Sunday's 31- 16 win over the New Orleans Saints. "Maybe I wouldn't have been pulled, but everybody else in the world, including my teammates, would've been somewhere else. "I never went into it trying to get my job back."

But that's exactly what happened after Dilfer passed for 227 yards and three touchdowns against the Saints. Coach Tony Dungy said Dilfer will start Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs with Eric Zeier still nursing separated cartilage in his right rib cage. It took only his fifth passing attempt since being benched Oct. 25 for Dilfer to do something that Zeier was unable to do last week at Detroit. Dilfer heaved a perfectly thrown ball that hit streaking receiver Jacquez Green in stride for a 62-yard touchdown that ended a miserable stretch of eight quarters without reaching the end zone.

The play ignited the offense to a season-high 31 points - roughly one-third of what they had scored all season - and improved their record to 4-4 at the midway point. Tampa Bay is tied with Green Bay (4-4) and Minnesota (4-4) for second in the NFC Central, two games behind surprising Detroit (6-2). "Offensively, we really needed this. We needed to take control of the game," Dilfer said. "We needed to grind it out in the fourth quarter the way we did. We needed to make some plays. Above everything else, that's what we've missed. We haven't made plays. Today we made some, and it's amazing all the ills it cures when you do that."

Just 13 days earlier, Dilfer was benched for Zeier, ending a streak of 70 regular-season starts. On Sunday, he won the game and his old job by being the best player on the field. Dilfer completed 15 of 20 passes, including touchdowns to Green, tight end John Davis and rookie Darnell McDonald. That production enabled an offense that had scored just nine points in its past two games to record a season-high 381 yards and convert 69 percent of their third-down situations (11-of-16). Fullback Mike Alstott made the lead stick by rushing for 117 yards on 25 carries - 93 of it coming in the second half.

"It was good to play a good ballgame," Dungy said. "I thought we finally played with some emotion and intensity. I think we went out there with an attitude that no matter what happens in the game, we're going to get some things done. We finally got some big plays, got some turnovers on defense and I thought Trent threw the ball really well."

Even Dungy was the recipient of two instant-replay challenges that went his way in the first half and represented a swing of at least 10 points in the game. What's more, they came from referee Ed Hochuli, whom Dungy had blasted following the Bucs' loss to the New York Giants, prompting a $10,000 fine. Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber ended the Saints' first drive when he intercepted a pass from Billy Joe Tolliver in the end zone. Replay eventually showed that the ball hit the ground, but Hochuli did not see that angle in the allotted 90 seconds and the challenge was denied.

Then the Saints appeared to have taken a 9-7 lead when Fred Weary returned a fumble by Warrick Dunn 75 yards for a touchdown after Sammy Knight's lateral. But Dungy challenged and Hochuli reversed the play when he determined Dunn was down by contact before the fumble occurred. Instead of a Saints' touchdown, the Bucs wound up padding their lead to 10-3 on Martin Gramatica's 35-yard field goal. Gramatica had a hand - not just his foot - in the Bucs' second touchdown when he recovered a fumbled kickoff by the Saints' Troy Davis that was forced by Jamie Duncan.

That led to Dilfer's 1-yard scoring pass to Davis on third and goal. "It took us eight weeks to get a call, but that was big," said Dungy. "I thought Warrick was down. You can't tell, it's a bang- bang play. We were the beneficiaries of two of those calls today, so today, it's a good thing."

Defensively, the Bucs clamped down on Saints rookie Ricky Williams, who was coming off a 179-yard rushing performance last week against Cleveland. Williams was bottled up for 41 yards on 14 carries (2.9 average). Much of the credit belonged to John Lynch and Derrick Brooks, who combined for 19 tackles. Brooks also intercepted Tolliver and returned it 38 yards to set up Dilfer's touchdown to McDonald.

After the game, Dilfer's teammates spoke of how confident they were that Dilfer would play well after getting a second chance. "I had two people come up to me on my team and say, 'Gosh, you really looked relaxed,' " Dilfer said. "You look like you've had the weight of the world taken off your shoulders. And I really don't feel that way. Maybe subconsciously, that's true and I've been different. "I'm not mad at people. I've tried very hard not to be bitter. Bitterness, I think, is a dangerous thing. Bitterness hurts the person who's bitter more than it hurts everybody else, and I'm not going to let that happen."

After Sunday's performance, Dilfer will continue at quarterback. He made the best of his second chance and positioned the Bucs to make a playoff run in the second half. "I don't think he ever got in a situation where he felt bad about himself," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "He's a tough guy, you know? It was an opportunity for him to go out and do what he does - play quarterback in the National Football League. And he did it well today. "You have to take your hat off to him after what he went through. Sometimes when you want something real bad and it's taken away from you, it gives you more incentive to go out and keep it if they hand it back to you."

Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 1999