Trent Dilfer has had a twisting, turning, up-and-down life in football. A sensational career at Fresno State led to him being the sixth overall draft pick of the Bucs in 1994 (above left). After six up-and-down (mostly down) seasons in Tampa Bay, Dilfer left. Yet he returned to Tampa in 2001 and won a Super Bowl — as the Ravens' starting quarterback. ¶ These days, Dilfer, 39, has become one of television's best NFL broadcasters, specializing in quarterbacks analysis for ESPN. Dilfer returns to Tampa Bay again this weekend for Monday night's Bucs-Colts game. Last week, he spoke by telephone from his home in northern California with St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones.
How often have you been to Tampa Bay since you played?
Five or six times. I've covered a Super Bowl there. I've been there on vacation with my family, and we still have a lot of friends there.
Does Tampa Bay still have lot of meaning for you?
It's still a special place, for sure. My wife and I fell in love with Tampa. We have great memories there. We had some great times. And some hard times, too. But we really enjoyed it.
What do you remember about your time in Tampa?
Just growing up. Looking back, my wife and I were a young married couple, and we grew up there and became adults. I learned how to be a leader, a mature person. My wife and I became comfortable in our skins as a couple. We went through a lot.
Did some of the tough times make you who you are today?
Exactly. Yes, I regret that I didn't play better for a lot of the time I was there. But I don't regret going through it all because it did make me who I am today.
Because you had a tough time as a young player, does that make you a little more sensitive as a broadcaster to young quarterbacks in the league?
Absolutely. I am a little more sensitive because I realize what young players are going through in this league. I try to be positive, for the most part, when talking about young quarterbacks. I might criticize their technique or various football-related things. But I don't criticize their persona. I realize there is still a growth process and they have a lot of life experience and playing experience to go through, and it takes awhile to get there.
When did you feel like you were starting to "get it'' as a quarterback in the NFL?
I started waking up toward the end of my third year. My first 21/2 years I was pretty self-absorbed. I felt sorry for myself, blamed other people for my problems. I was pretty immature. I was overwhelmed and frustrated. I was learning how to deal with failure for the first time and not doing a good job of it. I had never experienced failure, really. Finally, in my third year, we were like 1-7 or something (the Bucs started 1-8), and we just turned it around. I was more accountable, and I just played well from there on out.
Can you believe how quickly some of the young quarterbacks come into the league these days and have success?
These guys are blowing my mind, people like (Josh) Freeman, (Mark) Sanchez, (Joe) Flacco, (Matt) Ryan, (Colt) McCoy, (Sam) Bradford, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton. To do what they are doing at a young age like this is amazing. They are so mature on and off the field, and it speaks volumes on how there were trained in college and how they are being trained now.
Are young people just more mature these days?
I think that's true. The big reason is college football is so much bigger now that it used to be. They are in college, but it feels like an NFL environment. When I came out of college, we were protected, and the NFL overwhelmed us. When I was in college, there was no pressure. We were rock stars in college. We came from small towns, never really faced adversity. We weren't lambasted on blogs and so forth.
Let's talk about the Bucs' Josh Freeman. What do you like about him?
Two things. One, his poise. The other is his willingness to let plays develop instead of trying to make something happen. He lets the plays breathe, which most young guys don't.
How has he played this season?
I think he has regressed a little. He has two very bad interceptions in the red zone. I think those were more physical errors than mental errors. He will improve. He will become tighter. You look at the greats — (Tom) Brady, (Drew) Brees, (Peyton) Manning, (Philip) Rivers, (Aaron) Rodgers — the guys who play at a high level, and they seem unstoppable. With them, everything is compact, really tight, efficient. Josh is spread out a little, a little slow. But he'll get it. It just takes some time.
When you got into broadcasting, did you think it would turn into a new career?
I didn't know. I started out with NFL Network to see if I had a taste for it. I realized I love football. I love talking football, studying football. I love coaching football, but I didn't want to be a coach. This is the next best thing to that, and it provides a great lifestyle. But I'm coaching through broadcasting. I love sharing it with everyone else.
There are always viewers who will say, "Trent Dilfer was not a great quarterback, so what makes him such a good analyst?''
First off, I don't care. Maybe I should. But I didn't care what other people said when I played and don't care now. You can't let critics direct your path. I study and do tons of research, and I will challenge anyone out there when it comes to what's going on. Everything I say is from an educated point of view. I don't just say, "Well, I played, so here's my opinion.'' It's based on lots of work.
Is it tough to be critical?
I never criticize the person, only the player. What I mean is I only talk about what's going on on the field. I never minded when analysts in my day like Joe Theismann or Ron Jaworski or Matt Millen criticized my play. If they said, "Oh, he should've looked here,'' or "He made a bad read there,'' I was fine with that. What I didn't like is if someone said, "Trent Dilfer doesn't work hard'' or "He's lazy'' or "He's no leader,'' because they don't have a clue. So I only talk about what a guy does on the field, and if I am going to say something like a guy is lazy or a problem in the locker room, it's only after I've talked to a lot of people who have confirmed that to me. But, again, everything I say is based on doing my homework. So I'm comfortable with what I say.
Two minutes with Jon Gruden
Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden returns to Raymond James Stadium on Monday for the first time since he was fired after the 2008 season. He will call the Bucs-Colts game for ESPN's Monday Night Football. ESPN asked Gruden about his time in Tampa Bay.
What's your best memory from Raymond James?
When we returned home from the Super Bowl in San Diego (in 2003). It was packed. That was phenomenal. The place was just going crazy. There was a traffic jam all up and down Dale Mabry (Highway).
What's the loudest you ever heard it at Raymond James?
The San Francisco game in the 2002 divisional playoffs was probably the loudest I ever heard that stadium. All the flags were waving. We ended up winning 31-6.
What was the best win you had at Raymond James?
In 2005 we beat the Atlanta Falcons 27-24 in overtime. It was Cadillac Williams' rookie year. We came from behind to get the win, and it helped us win the division.
This will be your first home Monday night game with ESPN. How nice will it be to sleep in your own bed and to host the crew in the city where you live?
I love it. I'm not a great traveler. I don't pack well, and I don't necessarily sleep that well in foreign places. I love Tampa. That's why I live here. My parents are from here. The guys on the crew, I'm going to have some of them out with me. We're going to have a nice dinner and watch some college football on Saturday night.
tom jones' two cents