When he takes his first snap as the starting quarterback, Trent Dilfer will be carrying the ball, the team, the hopes of thousands of fans and the burden of history. As a rookie thrown into the cauldron of battle, it is up to the No. 1 draft choice of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to survive this first test that can lead to greatness.
"There have been guys who got thrown in the fire and weren't mentally prepared to handle it," Dilfer said. "They had a bad year, a bad game, and went into the tank. That's not me. If I have a horrible game or two, or more, I'm not going to crash and burn."
Dilfer, the No. 6 pick in the first round of the 1994 draft, can't be much more horrible than he was two weeks ago in Atlanta _ three interceptions that led to a Falcons touchdown and field goal in a 34-13 rout. "Bonehead rookie mistakes," he called them.
He is the third first-round quarterback pick by the Bucs, following Doug Williams in 1978 and Vinny Testaverde in 1987. And he is the heir apparent to third-year pro Craig Erickson. Going into the 49ers game, the Bucs' record with Erickson as the starter is 7-14.
Dilfer's test as a starter may last a few games or a few years. It may not be pretty at first. It rarely is.
"Most rookies who have started had the opportunity because they were high draft picks on bad teams," said Seattle offensive coordinator Larry Kennan, who has guided the rapid development of quarterback Rick Mirer, a No. 1 pick a year ago. "Any quarterback starting on a bad team is not going to look good, no matter who it is."
But Brad Bell, Dilfer's teammate and best friend at Fresno State, said the Bucs' latest hope at quarterback will not allow defeat to break his spirit. "He knows his position on the team now is as a student of the game," Bell said. "And he will treat a loss, even a season of losing, as a temporary setback. He will not buckle. "
Bad things happen
Said Dilfer: "Hey, bad things are going to happen when a young quarterback goes in there. You've got to be mentally tough enough to suck it up and survive it. Look at (John) Elway. His first season was a disaster. Did it affect his career? No. He said to himself, "That was my rookie season. I've learned a lot. I'm going to get better.' "
Elway, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman were steeled by the forge of futility and lived up to _ maybe even exceeded _ expectations. Dan McGwire, Kelly Stouffer and Todd Marinovich never fulfilled their promise. Testaverde, Jim Everett and Jeff George still have time to prove their worth.
It has as much to do with the quarterback's psyche as with the talent surrounding him.
"A No. 1 choice usually comes in pretty quickly," Jim Plunkett said. "A team down the ladder often begins to think, "We invested a lot in this player; we want to see something for it.' "
Plunkett spent five abysmal, battered seasons in New England and two more unproductive years in San Francisco before the Raiders resurrected his career and won two Super Bowls. He remembers armoring himself with a lineman's pads as a rookie Patriot 23 years ago. He knew he was going to be pummeled. He also remembers that year fondly, playing with reckless abandon because, he said, he didn't know any better.
It was only after a second brutal season, and a third, that the beatings finally began chipping away at his confidence.
"A young quarterback comes in and gets himself beaten up, maybe suffers emotionally," Plunkett said. "To what degree, and whether he bounces back, I guess it depends on how he handles it. Some bounce back better than others. "We're all superb in college. That's why we're drafted No. 1. Some of us end up thinking, "My God, maybe I'm not as good as I thought I was; maybe I'm not as good as they think I am.' But (Tampa Bay coach Sam) Wyche is going to help Dilfer all he can."
Fire and brimstone
Testaverde, the first pick Ray Perkins ever made as Bucs head coach, arrived in Tampa Bay in 1987, armed with a Heisman Trophy and a quiet, almost shy demeanor. He was a riddle Perkins admittedly was never able to solve.
Six frustrating seasons later, Testaverde left for Cleveland. He never displayed the fury that seems to percolate just below the surface of, say, a Dan Marino. (Then again, it is absent, too, in Joe Montana, the ultimate quiet leader.)
"Vinny wasn't demonstrative," said Turk Schonert, the Bucs' quarterback coach since 1992, Testaverde's last season in Tampa Bay. "I wasn't here when he came into the league but people say, for whatever reason, that Vinny needed other people to do the leading. He might have followed and become a better leader, but he wasn't ready to shoulder the whole team.
"I think Trent is," Schonert added. "He has a completely different personality. "
Dilfer would like to combine the composure of Montana and Aikman with the fire of Elway and Marino. "I'm not going to yell at anyone now. I don't have that right yet. But as my career grows, maybe I'll stand up a little more and let people know how I feel."
In other words, Fresno State revisited.
"He always was in command here," Bulldog coach Jim Sweeney said. "He was not placid. Trent Dilfer was fire and brimstone, an awesome leader and a tough son of a b----. That will occur in his career, I guarantee you."
Bell, a defensive lineman at Fresno State, said of Dilfer: "Off the field we were best friends; on the field I hated his guts 'cause he's so stinkin' intense.
"One time in practice he was running an option to the short side of the field and I was in perfect position. He couldn't pitch, he couldn't run it, so he let up. Now, the play before, I'd gotten yelled at by coach Sweeney for coming too close to Trent. So I put up my hands, like, "I'm not going to touch him,' and Trent put his head down and ran right over the top of me."
Competitiveness was always there, and not just on the field.
"There were times," Bell said, "when we'd go out to eat and it became who could eat the most. It wouldn't start out that way; it'd just be a meal. But it would turn into, "Whatever you're ordering, I'm ordering _ and I'm getting an hors d'oeuvre with it.' Whatever it is you're doing with Trent, he will not be second."
Let us help you
Fresno State flanker Charlie Jones said Dilfer has "that voice you have to listen to. It's a hard voice. He's not the quiet type."
And Sweeney has a bit of unsolicited advice for Wyche: If you want to get the most out of that voice, ditch the hurry-up.
"Trent could get a chance to bring (the offense) back to huddle and there he could impart the fire in the nostrils. He could eyeball them in the huddle. They could do some bonding. It's very difficult to be a leader at the same time you're trying to shout over the noise of the crowd. The only time you can do it is when you've got them around you and you can tell them, "Suck it up. This is third and 1. This has gone far enough. Knock 'em off the damn line!'
"It's like (Gen. George) Patton," Sweeney said. "Do you think Patton could've mustered his men if he was running around in the open trying to yell at all his soldiers in different places? He couldn't have told 'em, "We're going to kill those sons of b------!' That's what happens in the huddle."
For the time being, Dilfer will have to settle for being a supporting actor placed in the lead role.
"Right now he's still learning," said Bucs guard Scott Dill. "He can't go in with that "Follow-me' kind of attitude. "
And when he starts, Dilfer had best be prepared for a pocketful of tacklers, and a fistful of setbacks.
"If I could put my arm around his shoulder," Plunkett said, "I'd tell him, "Don't hesitate to throw the ball away. Don't be ashamed to go down. You're going to take your lumps. But it's not all on your shoulders. And it's going to get better. You're going to have great games down the road.' "
How first-round QBs did in first NFL game
Some who started right away
Att. Com. Yds. TD Int. Tkld. Opp. Result
Drew Bledsoe, Sea, 93 30 14 148 2 1 3/13 at Buf. L
Rick Mirer, NE, 1993 27 20 154 0 1 4/13 at SD L
Jeff George, Ind, 1990 24 13 160 1 0 3/25 at Buf. L
Troy Aikman, Dal, 1989 35 17 180 0 2 2/30 at NO L
John Elway, Den, 1983 8 1 14 0 1 4/26 at Pit. a-W
Doug Williams, TB, 78 5 1 9 0 1 0/0 NYG b-L
Jim Plunkett, NE, 71 15 6 127 2 1 0/0 Oak. W
Terry Bradshaw, Pit, 7016 4 70 0 1 2/10 Hou. L
a-played first half, injured; b-played first quarter, injured.
Some who waited awhile in their first year (pro game started in parentheses)
Att. Com. Yds. TD Int. Tkld. Opp.
Heath Shuler, Wash, 1994 (5) 30 11 96 1 2 2/14 Dal.
Result L 7-34
Tommy Maddox, Den, 1992 (11) 26 18 207 0 2 6/47 at Raid.
Dan McGwire, Sea, 1991 (5) 7 3 27 0 1 0/0 Ind.
Todd Marinovich, Rdrs, 1991 (16) 40 23 243 3 0 0/0 KC
Kelly Stouffer, Sea, 1988 (5) 21 11 164 0 0 2/15 at Atl.
Jim Everett, Rams, 1986 (2) 20 7 56 1 2 0/0 NO
Vinny Testaverde, TB, 1987 (12) 47 22 369 2 2 3/17 at NO
Tony Eason, NE, 1983 (13) 27 13 159 0 1 5/47 at NYJ
Dan Marino, Mia, 1983 (6) 29 19 322 3 2 1/12 Buf.
Phil Simms, NYG, 1979 (6) 12 6 37 0 0 2/19 TB
Joe Namath, NYJ, 1965 (3) 40 19 287 2 2 2/26 at Buf.
y-played first half; z-drafted No. 1 by Cards in 1987, refused to sign, sat out season, traded 4-22-88 to Seahawks.
Bucs QBs this season
The statistics this season of Bucs quarterbacks Craig Erickson, Trent Dilfer and Casey Weldon:
G/S Att. Cp. Yds. Pct. TD Int. Tkld. Rating
Erickson 6/6 158 89 1,104 56.3 6 1 15/83 88.2
Dilfer 2/0 21 11 154 52.4 0 3 4/12 36.7
Weldon 1/0 6 6 58 100.0 0 0 0/0 106.9