To Dilfer, the truth looks all too clear
They say there is no reward that quite matches self-awareness. From the look on Trent Dilfer's face, perhaps there is no punishment quite like it, either. The face was flush, as red as if he had been playing outside in the snow. It was anger, not embarrassment, although both might have had a place in there somewhere. The quarterback stood in front of his locker, ripping the tape from his wrists as if it was a reminder of what had happened. He balled one strip up into a ball and hurled it into his locker. As his day went, it was a highlight throw. "I played," he said, "like a dog."

On a day that had little else worth keeping by Dilfer, give him credit for accuracy of analysis. A quarterback who had been getting better inch by inch slipped a couple of feet backward Sunday in a 21-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The quarterback of a better tomorrow had returned to a bitter yesterday. Oh, no one expected it to be touchdowns and trophies from now on. Dilfer still is a young quarterback, and he is surrounded by castaways and commoners. There were going to be losses. Everyone knew that. There were going to be interceptions and overthrows. Every quarterback has those.

But not like this. Not with Dilfer improvising plays, losing his poise the way he did a season ago when he was unhappy, going squirrelly at crunch time. If you were disappointed in his play, you have his company. Players deal with defeat. They shrug off bad performances. But this was worse. This was losing in the head before the body had a chance.

"I feel really bad," he said. "I admire our team so much. I feel like I let them down. It hurts when you let down people who are playing their butts off. I lost my poise in the fourth quarter. I didn't trust the system. I knew they were blitzing, and I didn't think we would be able to execute our plays against them, and I was wrong. We had people open if I had maintained my poise."

The entire day was a struggle for Dilfer and the offense. The Vikings manhandled an offensive line that included Jorge Diaz and Joel Crisman at guards and Jason Odom at tackle. At halftime, Dilfer had all of 1 yard passing. Only three of 15 possessions lasted longer than three plays. It was a cry for help by an offense that now has scored fewer than 14 points 10 times in 15 games.

But nothing was more glaring than the backward step of the quarterback. On a day the Vikings gave the Bucs everything but a Tickle Me Elmo, Dilfer refused to take it. Not for a long time has he been this disappointing.

It is one thing if you do not trust the plays Mike Shula sends in. It is quite something else if Dilfer does not. Later, Dilfer would blame himself and praise Shula's offense. But in crunch time, he kept tinkering. In the final quarter, the Vikings would load up. Dilfer would not believe in the play, so he would alter the pattern of his backside receiver. This not being the sandlot, it worked about the way you would expect.

There was the third and 7, when Dilfer changed Karl Williams' pattern. Williams ran long and inside. Dilfer threw long and outside. There was the third and 5, when Dilfer changed Robb Thomas' pattern. Thomas curled short. Dilfer threw long.

That wasn't the worst of it, though. The haunting play of the game came after the Bucs defense presented the team with the ball at the Minnesota 14 and a four-point deficit. Two plays later, Dilfer dropped back, then farther back, then back some more. Finally he threw off his back foot, hopping as he threw, toward Jackie Harris. Instead, Orlando Thomas came across the field to intercept. "This is as poorly as I played all year," Dilfer said. "I out-thought myself again. It feels like the Chicago game last year. It's one I need to examine, I need to think about. I don't ever want to feel like this again. I'm going to lose games, and I'm sure I'll have bad days. But I don't ever want it to be for this reason again."

Did the pass rush get inside his head? "I got inside my head," he said.

Say what you want about Dilfer. He has come far, but he has far to go, and so he remains subject to whatever interpretation you have of him. But he has never fooled himself. When he plays rotten, it is not lost on him. Nor was it lost this day. He had not been poised. He had not been precise. He had not progressed.

All he had was perspective. He had been awful, and he was fully aware of it. Standing in front of his locker, it was hard to tell if that was a blessing or a curse.

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1996