For the first time in his career, Trent Dilfer could be pushed for the starting job.
The quarterback job may be Trent Dilfer's to lose. But Tony Dungy plans to keep his word.
The Bucs coach said Wednesday he would sack his starting quarterback if Dilfer is outperformed in the preseason.
Although Dilfer has not missed a start in four seasons, the Bucs expect him to be pushed for the first time in his career by backup Eric Zeier.
"It's not just necessarily Trent playing himself out of it. Somebody else has to be playing better, and that's the bottom line," Dungy said. "Who's playing the best? Who gives us the best chance to win? That guy will be the quarterback.
"I think if you're a coach and you don't play the best people, you're sending a message to your team. You can't do that."
Just two years removed from the Pro Bowl and quarterbacking his team to its first playoff victory in nearly two decades, Dilfer would appear entrenched as the club's starter.
He was off to a fast start in training camp, but a poor scrimmage, in which he threw three interceptions against the Miami Dolphins Saturday at the Orange Bowl, fueled his detractors again.
Dilfer will start Saturday's preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns and is expected to take 15-20 snaps. Zeier will relieve him and is expected to direct the team for 15-25 plays, Dungy said. Rookie Shaun King will see action in the second half.
On Wednesday, Dungy discussed the Bucs quarterback situation and responded to speculation that he would not replace Dilfer as the starter before the regular season under any circumstances.
Dungy said the quarterbacks will not be evaluated just on their performance in preseason games.
"Let me say this, and it's what I told the quarterbacks. We use the whole off-season program, we use preseason, we use the practices, we use the games, we evaluate. And the guy who is playing the position the best will play," Dungy said.
"The only thing different about the quarterback position than any other position is once we decide who that guy is, then we're going to go down the road and he's going to be the quarterback. We're not going to go back and forth where this guy is having a bad quarter, so he's coming out."
Zeier, who was acquired in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens for a sixth-round pick, will present the biggest challenge to Dilfer.
When Dungy arrived in '96, he said he awarded Dilfer the starting quarterback job before training camp and was careful not to sign a backup that would challenge him in the preseason. The Bucs retained former Florida State backup Casey Weldon as their No. 2 quarterback.
"At that point in '96, we had made a decision that Trent was going to be our quarterback. Correct," Dungy said.
The last two seasons, veteran Steve Walsh served as Dilfer's backup and never competed for the starting role.
Zeier, who accounted for the Bucs only touchdown against Miami on a 7-yard toss to rookie Darnell McDonald, has started 11 games in the NFL in four seasons. King, a rookie from Tulane, likely won't challenge for a starting job this year, Dungy said.
"We think (Zeier) is a good quarterback and thought he was an upgrade," Dungy said. "We thought that made our quarterback position better. We drafted Shaun because we think he makes our quarterback position better. Not that he's going to start this year or be ready in 2004, he makes us better. If he starts, I think that's hard to ask a rookie to do that. I think playing a rookie doesn't necessarily give you the best chance to win. But if he does, he'll play well."
Dungy's philosophy has been that no job is secure until after the preseason. It's a practice he learned playing under former Steelers coach Chuck Noll.
"It does sound obvious or cliche. And it probably is," Dungy said. "You have to play the guy who's playing the best. In '74, the Steelers first Super Bowl year, Joe Gilliam was the quarterback coming out of training camp. People don't remember that. But in Chuck's mind, that's who was playing the best."
So far, Dungy said Dilfer has performed well enough to retain his starting job. But a better measuring stick will be how each quarterback plays in the preseason games.
"Eric's done well. (Trent) has done well, too," Dungy said. "But that's why we play, that's why we practice and it's got to carry over into the games.
"We do want to win. If (Dilfer) gives us the best chance to win, he's our guy."