Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 22 September 1997|
It was a throwaway pass that Trent Dilfer sailed out of bounds, over the retaining wall and into the stands Sunday night. But no matter what the refs might say, the Buccaneers are not intentionally grounding the ball this season. The quarterback who once was so bitten with the interception bug has turned into an exterminator.
Until his coming-out party before a national television audience on TNT, Dilfer's most important job seemed to be to hand the ball off and get out of the way of his stampede of running backs.
But then somebody took the handcuffs off Tampa Bay's maligned passer against the Miami Dolphins.
Remember when the Bucs' offense belonged in an arcade? Four plays for a quarter. Well, now they can light up the scoreboard like a pinball machine.
Dilfer completed 18 of 24 attempts for 248 yards and a career-high four touchdowns - two to fullback Mike Alstott - to lead the Bucs to a 31-21 win over the Dolphins before a record sellout crowd of 73,314 at Houlihan's Stadium. The victory kept the Bucs one of four unbeaten teams in the NFL while improving their record to 4-0. It also tied a club record with five straight wins, dating to the '96 season, and was the seventh straight win at home.
"I was a little concerned with all the hype that we'd be too jacked up. We wanted to show the national television audience what Buc football was all about. I think we did that," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "If you looked at the schedule, there was Miami and San Francisco and two division teams on the road. You always think you can win all the games. But realistically, I think you could've won a lot of money in Los Vegas if you said we'd be 4-0."
Ironically, Dilfer's longest touchdown probably was in the air for the shortest period of time. Facing third and 29 from his 42-yard line early in the fourth quarter, he flicked a screen pass to his left to tailback Warrick Dunn, who darted 58 yards for a touchdown and a 31-14 lead.
Dunn, who had enjoyed back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, was bottled up all night, averaging 1.5 yards per carry. But he provided 106 yards as a receiver.
"When you're hot the way this team is, you're going to get some breaks," Dilfer said. "You've got to have some luck. And No. 28 might be the best football player out there every time he steps on the field."
When Dunn wasn't running around Miami defenders, Alstott was running through them. He finished with 95 yards rushing on 18 carries, most of it coming after two and three collisions.
Here's how good the Bucs' offense was Sunday night: Punter Tommy Barnhardt never left the sideline. Tampa Bay also converted on 7 of 8 third-down situations, giving it an astonishing 27-of-48 conversions on the season.
The Bucs had drives of 49, 58, 76, 75, 73 and 71 yards. It was too much for even legendary Miami quarterback Dan Marino to overcome.
Marino finished 24-of-37 for 235 yards and two TDs. But he couldn't match bullets with the Bucs' young gun.
The Bucs could have scored more had Dilfer not finally suffered his first interception when Miami linebacker Zach Thomas tipped a pass to himself. The play ended Dilfer's streak of 92 straight attempts without an INT in the regular season (154 including the preseason). Not bad for a guy who began his career as a starter with 28 interceptions and five TD passes.
By the time Dilfer had thrown his second TD to Alstott midway through the second quarter to give the Bucs a 14-0 lead, he was 13-of-15 for 130 yards.
The scariest moment came on the Bucs' second possession. After firing 21 yards to Horace Copeland for a first down at the Miami 30, Dilfer absorbed a wicked shot to his left knee from Dolphins defensive tackle Shane Burton. "I was scared," Dilfer said. "It was a (Mark) Brunell-type thing when I got hit when I planted and fell straight back. I felt a sharp pain in my knee, but I didn't hear a pop. I always told myself I don't want to ever lay on the field. So I went to the sideline and said it's going to feel better and it did."
Dilfer returned to throw three more TD passes, including a 38-yard bomb to Reidel Anthony that padded the lead to 24-7.
"I don't think he likes me," Dilfer said of the former Florida star. "I told him I saw him catching balls for Danny Wuerffel and you have to do it for me. I went to the sideline before that series and said, `I need some plays from you.' He went out and made back-to-back plays. On the deep route, he flat-out outran the safety."
The Dolphins gave Dilfer some help. Terrell Buckley was called for a 43-yard pass-interference penalty to start the second half, allowing the Bucs to make it 17-7 on Michael Husted's 32-yard field goal.
The Bucs were short-handed on defense. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who had been such a force in their three victories and was the team sack leader with 3.5, was inactive due to an ankle sprain he aggravated last week at Minnesota.
Defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, who had missed practice all week, was playing with a badly bruised thigh. And nose tackle Brad Culpepper started despite missing workouts while recovering from a hip pointer. But it was enough, thanks to Dilfer and his airborne offense.
It's funny, but Johnson turned down the Bucs job to go to Miami where he had a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. He had no faith in Dilfer, he said.
Dilfer made it a point to meet Johnson at midfield before and after the game. "I have a ton of respect for Jimmy Johnson," Dilfer said. "If didn't have Tony Dungy for a head coach, I'd want Jimmy Johnson. I told Jimmy before the game, everything he said about me was fair. And I accept that For me it was just another game."
And just another win. Ho - and furthermore - hum.