Shoulder injury leaves Dilfer's fate in doubt
Everything Trent Dilfer knows about his future with the Bucs came to him in an instant. When Seattle defensive end Phillip Daniels planted Dilfer's shoulder into the Kingdome turf, Dilfer knew immediately his collarbone was broken and he likely was out for the season.
"As a quarterback, this is the one we all know is waiting around the corner for us," said Dilfer, out 4-6 weeks with only five weeks remaining in the regular season. "It happened to (Dallas' Troy) Aikman last year. It happened to (Kansas City's Elvis) Grbac last year. It happens to guys probably once in their career, especially on turf. "If you fall and your shoulder is kind of underneath you and if the guy is big enough and heavy enough and powerful enough, it's going to break. As soon as I was hit, I knew where the pain was and process of elimination, I knew what it was."
What Dilfer doesn't know is whether the vision of him writhing in pain is his final play as a Buc. The team must decide if it will exercise a $4-million option to keep Dilfer or let him become a free agent, and the decision has to be based largely on how he performed in 10 games this year. "It's too early to talk about," Bucs general manager Rich McKay. "I think we will wait and see all of that at the end of the year. I feel bad for Trent because I think Trent was starting to play well and feel confident in his play. Future-wise, it's been kind of our mindset: Let's see the season end and talk about it."
For a man whose best asset has been durability - he had a streak of 70 starts - it would be a strange twist of fate if his last day in a Tampa Bay uniform ended with an injury. But this season has been filled with twists and turns for the sixth-year pro out of Fresno State. Dilfer entered the season with the pressure of having to deliver in what essentially was a contract year. He flourished in the preseason when the team introduced multiple sets, but melted down in the season opener with four turnovers in a 17-13 loss to the Giants.
The offensive struggles continued, and as the leader of the offense, he was benched after the Bucs edged the Bears 6-3 without a touchdown. But Dilfer was back after Detroit beat replacement Eric Zeier 20-3 and knocked Zeier out of action with a rib injury. Although he said he saw no positives in the benching, Dilfer played with more confidence and enthusiasm in his return, guiding the Bucs to three consecutive victories. He earned another victory as a starter Sunday, but rookie Shaun King had to finish up as Dilfer watched from the sideline, his right arm in a heavy sling.
Is this how it ends for Dilfer? "That's for you guys to talk about. I don't worry about those things," Dilfer said. "If it is, it is. I hope it's not. I hope I'm here for the rest of my career, but those are things I can't control right now. "It's been frustrating, but we're 7-4 and in first place and I'm 7-3 as a starter and ultimately you're judged by wins and losses. Because of that, I feel like I've done my job. That's all I can do and I rest on that."
Ultimately, Dilfer's future rests in the hands of McKay and coach Tony Dungy, but King's performance also may be a factor. If the rookie doesn't play like one, the Bucs may be comfortable enough to let Dilfer move on. If King struggles, they may want Dilfer to retake the crown. "Maybe, but I don't think so," McKay said. "Shaun's still a young guy and you don't want to hurry him along too quickly."
Besides, King may not continue to be the starter. Zeier's health is improving and if he's ready to play, Dungy could opt for the fifth-year veteran. "It's hard to say," Dungy said when asked who will start. "We'll see what kind of physical shape he (Zeier) is in. Right now, Shaun has a winning streak. It's tough to go against that."
Meanwhile, McKay and his scouting staff must find a quarterback to add to the roster. The most likely candidate is former third-string quarterback Scott Milanovich, who spent three years with the team before being released in the off-season. "The one natural name you have to talk about is Scott Milanovich because the one thing you're looking at is somebody that can come in and learn the system quickly," McKay said. "If Eric isn't ready to go, then that person is one play away from being in the game."
Another available veteran is Jeff Hostetler. McKay said he expects to finalize his list of possibilities by Monday night.
Ernest Hooper , The St.Petersburg Times 1999