1. Archive

TAMMPA BAY BUCCANEERS // Dilfer will make or break Bucs

The case is an easy one, if you care to make it.

Argued in chronological order, it goes something like this:

The fate of the Bucs' 1995 season depends largely on the development of second-year quarterback Trent Dilfer, the team's 1994 No.

1 draft pick. If Dilfer plays well, the Bucs finally will win more than they lose, ending their NFL-record 12-year run of double-digit loss seasons.

If the Bucs win, the Tampa Bay area will rejoice, and the momentum created will galvinize efforts to replace Tampa Stadium with a new $168.1-million, state-of-the-art facility. If a new stadium goes up, the Glazer family's roots go down and Tampa Bay loses its billing as the NFL's version of hell on wheels. Baltimore and Los Angeles be damned.

Oh, and, Sam Wyche gets to keep his job, too.

Put it all together, and it's pretty obvious, isn't it? The future of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rests ever so squarely on Trent Dilfer's youthful shoulders.

Just win, baby.

"That's really a big thing to put on us," Dilfer said recently. "I think that the people that put that on us really don't know what they're talking about. Yes, we have a big part. If we win football games, this team's staying. But I think the stadium's going to be built anyway.

"I think everything is going to work together. We're going to look back at the situation and say, "Oh, it might have been the team or it might have been the community.' But it's going to have to be a combination."

Hindsight, hindsight. For now, let's just say the season boils down to a week-by-week Sunday afternoon referendum on the stadium issue. Consider Dilfer Proposition One. Win they stay, lose they go.

"First and foremost, winning will certainly help the process. We all know that," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "Because it will give people, specifically the politicians, a better feel about us as an organization, and make it easier to get the deal done. So what's happening is people are necessarily jumping therefore to the conclusion that, "Well, that means it's really on Trent Dilfer's shoulders,' and that's probably wrong.

"Winning and losing in this season is not going to come down to Trent Dilfer. There are 21 other starters and many other players on this football team. Obviously the quarterback plays an important part, but it's just as important for us to use him in the right way and make sure we don't expect too much. And still win. And we understand that."

Understood. But understand this, as a general manager, it is McKay's job description to look at the long-term ramifications of every move. To think of the big picture, and frame it, while others are focused on the temporal.

So, when the day comes that Dilfer tosses five interceptions in a 31-3 loss to the Vikings _ and it will _ McKay's unenviable task will be to elevate the vision of area leaders above the morass of another lost Sunday afternoon. To push a building project while fans may be tearing down his team. All the while, protecting the psyche of his franchise quarterback in the process.

"It's a bigger issue than what happens on Sunday afternoons this year," McKay said. "This is an issue that affects 30 years. It doesn't affect seven days. That week-to-week view sounds good in people's minds, and there are people out there thinking that. But the focus has to be getting a stadium. Not on whether you feel good or bad or we're winning this week or next.

"Maybe to some people the team's performance this year is of the utmost importance, but not necessarily to the people who are actually going to make the (stadium) decision. The guy who calls in on the radio station and gets angry and says, "I've had it. That's it. They just lost to the Packers. I don't want 'em any more.' Yeah, we're going to lose him. But the person who realizes, if we lose (the Bucs) it's 30 years until we get another NFL team, they're more focused on the big issue."

But Wyche, the Bucs' fourth-year head coach, can't afford to look too long-term. The past three double-digit loss seasons belong to him. Chances are, he's out the door if he makes it four.

Thus, Dilfer's development takes on a certain urgency. For understandable reasons.

"This is a special year in that how we play will have a say in how this thing comes out," said Wyche on the opening day of training camp. "That's all we can ask. We will have a part in determining where this franchise will be and if it will remain here or move to another location. That makes it bit of a unique situation. We have a chance to do our part to keep this team here in Tampa Bay. What we can do is win games."

The Bucs have been careful, of course, to ease off Dilfer's pressure cooker every chance they get. But for each time McKay mentions the importance of the other 21 starters, equating right guard Ian Beckles and Dilfer, if only for a moment, the other sentiment creeps to the surface. From someone, or somewhere.

"The weight is definitely going to be on his shoulders," receiver Lawrence Dawsey said. "He's either going to make us or break us."

At least early in the season, until Dilfer hits his stride, McKay and Wyche have resolved to stick to a gameplan. The Bucs' way to spell W-I-N will be R-U-N. Or, the optional spelling of Errict Rhett left, Errict Rhett right. Dilfer must learn how not to lose games before he learns to win them.

It is a formula McKay saw work for his dad, former Bucs coach John McKay, in 1979. Tampa Bay built its franchise-best 10-6 record on second-year quarterback Doug Williams throwing 20 or so times a game, Ricky Bell running to a 1,263-yard season and a No. 1-ranked defense.

"We will have a similar philosophy this year," McKay said. "What we have to do is understand where Trent is and what we can expect out of him. It doesn't mean that he can't be very, very effective. It just means that you want to try and gear the offense around his strengths at this time, which we see as big-play potential, play-action potential and those types of plays.

"We don't want him throwing 50 times a game, and Sam is very aware of that situation. Two people or two groups need to come through for Trent Dilfer. No. 1 is Trent Dilfer, and No. 2 is the Bucs, in the way we handle Trent Dilfer."

Despite his Top Gun swagger, Dilfer demurs to the walk-before-you-can-run logic.

"I can be bad and this team can still win," he said. "But the bad needs to be not very bad. I can't make stupid mistakes with the ball. We want to be consistent as a football team, and I think the biggest person responsible for that is probably me. I can't have those games where I'm on fire, then the next game go out and throw four interceptions.

"If we win, at the end of the season everybody is going to say I played great. Well, maybe I didn't play great, but we won games. That's how it works."

Perception or reality, it's all in Dilfer's hands in '95. Win and he'll be hailed as the franchise's savior. Lose, and, well, one can only hope for the best.

That's how it works.