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It's just a scrimmage, but Zeier passes test

Backup QB leads Bucs to their only TD in a 15-6 loss to the Dolphins.

In time, Eric Zeier might earn the Bucs a victory. In one scrimmage, he already has won the fans' affection.

Zeier is familiar with the routine. Coming soon, Tampa Bay fans will want to sack starter Trent Dilfer.

The No. 2 quarterback is who Zeier is. But after Saturday, Tampa Bay fans absolutely love him for who he is not.

"I've been on both sides of the coin, where they were yelling for me to get in then yelling for me to get out," said Zeier, who threw a touchdown to provide the only points for the Bucs in a 15-6 loss to the Dolphins at the Orange Bowl.

"They're going to be yelling for you and yelling against you, and I experienced both of them last year. Obviously, it gets to a lot of people. It makes you mad, it ticks you off.

"There's no sense in getting frustrated because when my opportunity comes, I've got to go out and perform."

Zeier did just that Saturday.

While Trent Dilfer struggled,tossing three interceptions _ including one that would've been returned for a touchdown if defensive scores were allowed _ Zeier took the Bucs to the end zone.

His 7-yard pass on fourth down to rookie Darnell McDonald capped a 65-yard drive and provided the Bucs their only score.

"I think I threw the ball well," said Zeier, who was 5-for-10 for 61 yards. "Right now, the ball is feeling really good coming out of my hands and I'm putting it where I want to."

Despite entering his sixth NFL season, Dilfer played like the newcomer, going 7-for-13 for 78 yards. A slow start in Miami is nothing new for Dilfer. A year ago, he went 1-for-12 for 10 yards in a preseason game in south Florida.

"I didn't play very good. Obviously, I'd like to have a couple (passes) back," Dilfer said. "I hurt our chances with the first group. We could've gotten some things going if I didn't make some mistakes. That's what next week is for."

But coach Tony Dungy wasn't nearly as forgiving of Dilfer's performance.

"Three interceptions. You can't win like that," Dungy said. "I put a lot of stock in it. I think we've got to come out and perform week in and week out. That's one of the things we talked about at the beginning of camp that we haven't done the three years we've been here. And this is our first chance to do it this year and we came up short."

According to quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, one of Dilfer's interceptions was a miscommunication with a receiver on a blitz read. But he also was critical of Dilfer.

"I'm awful glad it wasn't a game," he said. "But I just think, when we go out there, we've got to compete, especially offensively. We've come out of the last few preseasons with no confidence and that's one of the priorities of this year. Today's disappointing.

"I thought Zeier looked like he was pretty sharp. He looked like I expected him to look. He hit open guys, he was on time, he made a couple plays.

No matter how Zeier performs in the preseason, the starting quarterback job is really Dilfer's to lose. Despite what Dungy says, Zeier knows he likely will begin the season on the sideline.

"Is this job open for competition? No, it's not open to competition," Zeier said. "But I'm always preparing to be the starter, whether the job is open for competition or not. That doesn't change the way I work."

Zeier, who turns 27 next month, offers experience and efficiency _ traits that are rare in a backup. He has won games as a starter and has rallied his team to victory in relief.

In short, he is so much better than either Steve Walsh or Scott Milanovich that the Bucs actually think they have an alternative if Dilfer becomes injured or simply is ineffective. In four seasons, Zeier is 4-7 as a starter and has appeared in 21 games. But Dilfer hasn't missed a start in four seasons, second only to the Packers' Brett Favre.

"You hope Trent's durability continues to be solid, but if it isn't, he gives you some peace of mind," Christensen said. "The thing you'd hate is to have the talent we have, you're in the stretch run and you're right in the thick of it and all of a sudden your starter goes down for three games and you get eliminated."

Zeier had an incredibly productive collegiate career, setting 18 NCAA records. His career interception percentage of 2.64 is the second-best in college history.

Zeier spent his first three NFL seasons backing up Vinny Testaverde with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. Last year, he caddied for Jim Harbaugh.

But when the Ravens acquired Scott Mitchell from the Lions, the Bucs knew Zeier was on the market and dealt a sixth-round pick for him on the first day of the '99 draft.

"We liked Eric a lot," Dungy said. "Our scouts liked him coming out of (Georgia), which was before I got here. We felt he was a guy who moved his team when he was in there. He's got NFL experience and he has been productive."

The scrimmage was proof of that. But Dungy indicated that no jobs were lost Saturday.

"The whole team has to play better," Dungy said. "We're not going to single out one person. Obviously, we can't throw interceptions."