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If phone doesn't ring, Dilfer won't pick it up

Any minute now, the phone will not ring.

There will not be a general manager on the other end. He will not be waving wads of cash. Clamoring fans will not be heard in the background.

Every minute now, Trent Dilfer remains unemployed.

Apparently, this is what happens when you pull yourself up on top of the world. You discover seating is limited.

The last we saw of Dilfer, his past was being washed away in a shower of confetti at Raymond James Stadium. The ne'er-do-well quarterback of Bucs lore had returned to Tampa Bay to win a Super Bowl with the Ravens.

He had reached the pinnacle of a career and was ready to enjoy the rewards that are supposed to follow. Six months later, he still is waiting. The Ravens told Dilfer they could find a better quarterback. So far, none of the other 30 teams has called to say the Ravens were wrong.

Training camps start to open Thursday around the NFL and Dilfer has yet to find an invitation to his liking.

The response has been so underwhelming, his agent has raised the possibility that Dilfer, 29, will not be in uniform when the 2001 season begins. Rather than sign a contract to be a backup _ and he has had those offers _ Dilfer could sit tight until injury or ineffectiveness convinces some team that a change in quarterbacks is necessary. Even if it's for 2002.

"Trent has made nearly $25-million in his career and he has a Super Bowl ring," agent Mike Sullivan said. "He can afford to be choosy."

Sullivan's point is that you should not feel sorry for Dilfer because Dilfer is not particularly despondent himself.

It is a question of opportunity. There are 31 jobs for starting NFL quarterbacks in the world and only a handful come open every year. Dilfer's choice would have been to stay in Baltimore, but the Ravens signed free agent Elvis Grbac. Kansas City was his next choice, but the Chiefs signed free agent Trent Green. Dallas signed Tony Banks and San Diego signed Doug Flutie.

It is a question of economics. Plenty of teams have question marks at quarterback, but they also have large financial investments. Maybe in another few months, Arizona will cut its losses with Jake Plummer. Or Cincinnati with Akili Smith. Or Pittsburgh with Kordell Stewart.

In the meantime, Dilfer waits.

This is supposed to be the best time of the year. When every fan believes this year will be better than the last. When every coach envisions talent where he once had none. When every player believes his impact will be felt.

Dilfer has been deprived of those feelings and, for that, we should all feel a little cheated too. Because, somehow, the system has failed.

We are told winning is the ultimate scale by which athletes are weighed. And no quarterback won more than Dilfer last season. We are told humility and passion are the characteristics to envy in our heroes. And no one has been more humble or more enthusiastic than Dilfer.

He was the quarterback of a Super Bowl-winning team. Do you realize how many other active players can say that? Two. Kurt Warner and Brett Favre.

Obviously, the ovation could not last forever, but why did it have to stop so suddenly?

Yet, in an odd way, Dilfer's plight has made him a more embraceable figure.

No one is arguing that a future Hall of Famer is being shunned here. Dilfer still has the same drawbacks that convinced the Bucs to cut him loose and led Baltimore coach Brian Billick to do the same. The public outcry to his departure in Tampa Bay and Baltimore was more defining than deafening.

But a sense of justice, of fair play, says he deserves to have a good job somewhere in the NFL. Just not here. Think in terms of a homeless shelter. By gosh, a community needs it and its citizens should demand it. Just don't build it near my deed-restricted community.

In late December, before the Ravens played their first playoff game, Dilfer sat in the locker room on a Monday afternoon and talked about the possibility that Billick might look for a new quarterback in 2001.

Dilfer said he was not worried. His reputation, his confidence, his dignity had been restored by his time in Baltimore. He could not possibly be in a worse situation than he had the previous off-season upon leaving Tampa Bay.

He had no way of knowing that, a month later, he would win a Super Bowl. And that the NFL would respond with a yawn.

If the phone doesn't ring, it's for Dilfer.