NFL Analyst Trent Dilfer Is Staying at ESPN
The internet rumors speculating the end of Trent Dilfer’s eight-year run at ESPN are unfounded. The Monday Night Countdown analyst told The MMQB that he has reached a multi-year extension with ESPN and will take on an expanded role this fall. On top of his current duties, he’ll join Sunday NFL Countdown and work alongside former Seahawks teammate Matt Hasselbeck, Chris Berman and Charles Woodson. Dilfer, a quarterback who played 14 NFL seasons for Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Seattle, Cleveland and San Francisco, joined ESPN in 2008 and quickly became an expert analyst on the position he once played. We recently caught up with him to talk about his role at ESPN, the summer camp scene for high school football players, and the best team situations for young NFL QBs.
KAHLER: So many reports over the past few months had you leaving ESPN—what happened? And how will your role be different?
DILFER: A lot of stuff gets said that isn’t true. I’ve been under contract with ESPN and I am still under contract with ESPN. I will be next year as well. I will be back, and in fact, doing more of an expanded role. It will be Monday Night Countdown and Sunday NFL Countdown. The Sunday morning thing is new for me. I’m excited to be working with the new guys, Matthew Hasselbeck, Charles Woodson—and still working with Chris Berman. Is it any different? I like changing things up, I like doing different things and this will be one more thing I’ll get to do. I’ve done this show before. I’ve been on Sunday NFL Countdown I think four or five times. The pregame thing is different than what I have done in the past, because most of what I’ve done is reactionary, I’m reacting to what happens Sunday during the day, and now this is a little more predictive and storyline-based.
KAHLER: You’re close friends with Hasselbeck from your time in Seattle. How excited are you to work with him?
DILFER: Matthew has been a dear friend for a long time. I think he is going to be pretty darn good on TV from the jumpstart. He’s got that charisma; he’s fun and obviously he knows a lot about football. My wife and I were talking about it the other day, it’s going to be kind of like when we played together, you sit in meeting rooms and brainstorm over things, it’s going to be neat.
KAHLER: Did you have any broadcasting tips for Hasselbeck?
DILFER: Advice is funny. I told him that it’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s just being yourself, and talking about football. There are some mechanics stuff, just some mechanics of TV that will take some getting used to, but really what I told him is be yourself and let’s have some fun doing this. You know a lot about football and share it with the audience. It’s that simple. And then as we go along, I’m sure it will be a collaboration on how to do the best possible job we can.
KAHLER: For the last six years, you’ve also been the head coach of Elite 11, a quarterback camp competition for high school players. There are countless camps like these out there and serious high school football players have no summers off anymore. Is the non-stop football summer camp scene healthy?
DILFER: There wasn’t anything like this when I was growing up—and if there was, I wouldn’t have been good enough to do it. There are so many opportunities for young athletes to get better and learn from others. The camp scene, it seems like everybody has a camp and you’re not quite sure why they are there, to be quite honest. Some are competition, some are opportunities for brands to give them stuff, some are learning experiences, but they are happening every weekend. So the challenge of the Elite 11 has been: What do we do to differentiate it? And how do we make sure it’s for kids first? It has nothing to do with anything but the development of the kids. We want to make sure that it’s worth it for the parent and the child to invest into that week, not financially because it doesn’t cost anything, but just time. The company that runs the event is called Student Sports. They are out of Southern California, they have been in this space forever. What we do is we just really try hard to make sure that everything we do is very purposeful for the development of the kids. So yeah, we do a lot of football stuff, but we also do a lot of holistic development stuff as well. We have Michael Gervais, the world’s leading performance coach speak to them three or four times, and Alexis Jones, the national speaker talk about the power of the jersey and how impactful it is not just to the fans but to the women in their life. We do tons of mental training and all that stuff, and really try to give them an experience that is lasting. We feel it is working pretty well, because our kids who go on to college football and the NFL, they all come back and want to help. They all feel like it had an impact on them and their journey. So for that reason we kind of feel like we are winning.
KAHLER: Who are some prominent Elite 11 alumni?
DILFER: We’re loaded, our guys are in every draft class. Jared Goff is an alum. He was with us in Redondo last weekend, he was helping us out. Jameis Winston went through it. Carson Wentz was a counselor for us last year. Christian Hackenberg is an alum. Pretty much every college quarterback that is out there has either gone through a regional or was at the finals. I want to say it’s 80 percent-ish of Power Five starting quarterbacks are Elite 11 guys.
KAHLER: This reminds me of Robert Klemko’s story on how quarterbacks are made. He examined the background of the 15 quarterbacks drafted in 2016 and found that 12 of the 15 received individual instruction from a quarterback coach who was not a parent or a team-affiliated coach. Do you think it is difficult to make it to the NFL as a quarterback with limited resources?
DILFER: It’s something we are always discussing, because I am involved in other camp stuff also. It’s a hard one. I read the story and Klemko did a wonderful job on that, and there are some realities to it that you would like to see be different. Where I am at, my role in this thing, is to enhance each kid’s journey. I don’t really care about destinations. I don’t invest all my time coaching to create NFL quarterbacks. I’m doing it so that every quarterback on their journey has a better experience, and give them tools to win at life. They can learn those and learn these skills through the action of quarterbacking. It’s a pretty powerful platform, whether it is in high school, college or the pros—let’s equip them with tools that will help them succeed in life as much as quarterbacking. I go that way because I don’t want to be making empty promises and that’s never been my motivation, to create an NFL quarterback. One of our core values is building stronger foundations for their real coach to then build off of.
KAHLER: You said around 80 percent of Power Five starting quarterbacks are Elite 11 guys. Is it even possible anymore to get recruited without attending one of these camps?
DILFER: I think so, I’m a big believer in multi-sport athlete, that’s a big thing for me. When parents and kids ask me questions, I really encourage them to play multiple sports, not just to spend their springs and summers playing football all the time. You don’t have to be constantly throwing a football. If you’re in high school, there is a ton of value in doing other stuff. Carson Wentz is an interesting study because he didn’t do any of this stuff. He was a counselor for us, but he didn’t do any of the camp scene when he was going through the process, and there are other quarterbacks that have made it. I think it is the newer generation of quarterbacks, the camp culture that has been created, but I don’t think it is a bad thing. It’s different than past generations of quarterbacks. You can totally make it without it.
KAHLER: You retired at age 35. Why do you think so many quarterbacks today are playing great football in their late thirties?
DILFER: The nutrition and training side has been so advanced over the years. These guys take such good care of themselves, there are so many resources there for them to stay fit and stay healthy and stay physical enough to do the job. And the job isn't as physically taxing as it once was. You don’t get hit as hard or as much as they did in the '80s or '90s. Because of that, the toll on their body in season isn’t as much as it was for Troy Aikman or Dan Marino—these guys took beatings in their career because the rules were a lot different. Those are probably the two biggest factors.
KAHLER: You had 14 concussions in your career. How are you feeling today? Are you concerned about brain damage?
DILFER: I just went through my whole process of getting examined and screened and tested and there were no signs of damage. Although if you ask my wife, she might argue that. I might keep an eye on it, you can’t help but think about it, because people are constantly talking about it as if it’s the biggest issue in the history of football. I think there are a lot of guys who had a lot of concussions that didn’t end up with brain damage. But because there are some that have, it happens to be the narrative going around football right now. Football is under attack because of it. Personally, I don't lose any sleep over it, but it is something I will keep my eye on over the next 20 or 30 years.
KAHLER: Since you’re familiar with a lot of college quarterbacks who came through Elite 11, who will be the first quarterback off the board in 2017?
DILFER: I think DeShaun Watson is a likely candidate. He is an Elite 11 guy; he was with us last week helping us out. I think Davis Webb is a sleeper. He’s a fifth-year transfer that is now going to Cal. He transferred from Texas Tech to Cal. Big, physical, athletic, and has all the skillset you are looking for. He will be super productive this year at Cal, being a starter in that offense. But you never know, so much can happen in the fall in college football. I think there will probably be another player that emerges, but those would be the two that stick out to me now.
KAHLER: Which quarterback pick in this year’s draft surprised you the most?
DILFER: I was surprised that Paxton Lynch went that high, that he was the guy that was targeted by Denver. Not because I don’t like him, but the tape—he was so raw. You know there is going to be a steep learning curve there. I think that was one that I was surprised at, not shocked at, but a little surprised.
KAHLER: How can the quarterback position be coached better in the NFL?
DILFER: Too often in the NFL, the quarterback coach gets hired because of his X’s and O’s abilities, his football acumen, not necessarily his quarterback acumen. The games become so much about what you do in the classroom and scheme. And what happens is there are not enough teachers in the quarterback room, guys who can teach the quarterback how to get better everyday. Drills, or whatever it is, where you are constantly working on your craft. I don’t want to say it is everywhere—there are great quarterback coaches in the NFL—but I know there needs to be more. There are quarterbacks out there who don’t get the daily instruction needed to hone their craft. It’s hard to find quarterback coaches who can do both well, that are really good XO guys and are really good training guys, too. The guys that are thriving the most in the NFL are the guys who have quarterback coaches who can do both things well.
KAHLER: Specifically, what team is doing that well?
DILFER: A really good situation right now for a young quarterback is Philly. Philly has a great situation with Frank Reich, with Doug Pederson, they have so many coaches on that staff that understand the development of a quarterback, both from an X and O's standpoint and a daily developmental standpoint as well. Carson Wentz went to about as good of a situation as you can go to as a young quarterback.
KAHLER: Will Wentz play this season?
DILFER: No, I think Sam Bradford will play well enough that they won’t have to do that. I think deep down, the Eagles probably want to see Carson sit and watch for awhile.
KAHLER: You became the starter for Tampa in your second season, and didn’t have much time to sit and learn behind a veteran quarterback. Later in your career you were a mentor to Hasselbeck, Charlie Frye, and Alex Smith—so how important do you think it is for a young quarterback to learn under an experienced one?
DILFER: I personally think it is really important, but there are situations where that hasn’t happened and the guy has still been successful. You need to see the job being done by somebody. You need to have somebody to bounce questions off of, you need an ally to walk you through some stuff. It can get overwhelming at times for a young player. Personally, if I was running a franchise, I would sit my young quarterback for a period of time so he can see it being done by somebody else. A lot of these organizations feel the pressure to put somebody on the field early because they drafted him so high. I understand that, but I don’t necessarily agree with it.
KAHLER: Will Paxton Lynch see the field?
DILFER: No. I think Paxton, of all the quarterbacks, has the most learning to do. He is more of the developmental mold than the others who were taken. For that reason I think it will be between Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian.
KAHLER: Holdup. As a Northwestern alumni, I have to ask, what kind of chance does fellow Wildcat and 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian have at the Denver job?
DILFER: He is a talented kid and I really liked him coming out. He was a kid that was exciting because he got the chance to learn and go to an organization where they believed in him. It is interesting how well he has done in a short time there. He has the talent to do it. He has the competitive spirit and the mind to do it. He just has to get once chance, one opportunity and he has to capitalize on it. The reality of it is, when you aren’t a high draft pick you don’t get the same leash as others do. He just has to make sure that he pounces on that opportunity.
KAHLER: Pick an underrated guy that you think has huge potential.
DILFER: I would say Christian Hackenberg out of this year’s draft. I personally thought he was the best prospect. In terms of a prospect, you can’t get much better than Christian. Every team looks at that differently in how they draft, but I think he is everything you are looking for, given the right situation and the right grooming period, he can be as good as anybody.
KAHLER: You know Alex Smith well from your time as teammates in San Francisco. He’d been labeled as a game manager for most of his career, but last season he put together a 10-game winning streak and took the Chiefs to the playoffs. Do you think he’ll continue to shake that game manager title?
DILFER: I think he has a chance to really have a great year and build off of what he did last year. It’s hard to say because that game manager title is actually a compliment to me. A lot of quarterbacks like that—people recognize that they know how to win games. I think statistically he will continue to improve as they get better around him, too, that’s always a big part of it. You need the people around you to get better for you to be statistically successful.
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