Cold Shoulder Even with a Super Bowl win on his resume, Trent Dilfer is not getting a warm reception on the free-agent market

March 26, 2001

He went to Disney World, wore the white mustache in a GOT MILK?
ad, was fawned over by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show and won the
Quarterback Challenge, arcing picturesque passes through the
trade winds of Kauai. But now the man who quarterbacked the
Baltimore Ravens to the top of the football world has dropped off
its face. Two months after helping the Ravens to a 34-7 victory
over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, Trent Dilfer has
nowhere to play and little to say.

Last Friday, while troublesome Ryan Leaf was waiting to hear if
the Dallas Cowboys could complete a trade with the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers and make him their starting
quarterback--seriously--Dilfer was playing golf at the San Joaquin
Country Club near his home in Fresno, spurned by the Ravens and
ignored by the rest of the NFL.

Despite having won 16 of his last 17 starts, the free agent
Dilfer finds himself in a situation that has come to this: Even
when he wins, he loses. In a league in which discards such as
Leaf, who was dumped in February by the San Diego Chargers, and
Jon Kitna (late of the Seattle Seahawks) have been handed second
chances, Dilfer is being avoided like shepherd's pie at a London
pub. Perhaps mindful of a different strain of foot-and-mouth
disease, Dilfer has declined to comment publicly about his
predicament. In a brief telephone conversation last Saturday
night, he told SI that after winning the Super Bowl in his
one-shot deal with the Ravens, he can accept whatever twist his
career takes in 2001: "I've made a decision that winning is more
important than anything else, and I stand by it."

Though he was scheduled on Wednesday to visit the Kansas City
Chiefs, the trip is not expected to amount to much. The Chiefs
are trying to pry backup Trent Green from the St. Louis Rams, but
while the two teams haggle over his trade value, Kansas City is
evaluating Dilfer and recently released Cowboys starter Troy
Aikman as fallback options. The likeliest scenario has Green
getting dealt to the Chiefs by the first day of the draft (April
21), Aikman retiring and Dilfer signing elsewhere as a backup on
the cheap after June 1, when teams have more salary-cap room
available.

"It's surprising because Trent's got a lot of ability, and the
bottom line in this league should be wins and losses," says
Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. "Last year he played
smart and didn't turn the ball over a lot, and you'd think a team
that runs the ball and plays good defense would be champing at
the bit to sign him."

Funny, that's how the Ravens played in their march to the
championship. But Cavanaugh and his boss, coach Brian Billick,
couldn't wait to replace Dilfer after the quarterback's one-year
contract expired on March 1--first wooing former Washington
Redskins starter Brad Johnson, who instead chose the Bucs, and
then signing former Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac to a
five-year, $30 million contract. That's $30 million more than any
team has offered Dilfer, the first of the 22 Super Bowl-winning
quarterbacks to have suffered such an inglorious fate. (The
closest precedent to Dilfer's situation came when David Woodley,
the Miami Dolphins' quarterback in their Super Bowl loss to the
Redskins in January 1983, was displaced by rookie Dan Marino the
following October.)

How did this happen? "There are a lot of free agents waiting for
the phone to ring, and not just at the quarterback position,"
says Bucs coach Tony Dungy, who cut Dilfer following the '99
season. "Money's tight [under the cap], and every year from here
on out, it's going to get more and more like that. But I don't
know what more a guy can do than what Trent did last season."

Yet while Dungy and his coaches discussed bringing Dilfer back to
Tampa Bay, they opted for Johnson, who had been in Minnesota when
Dungy was the Vikings' defensive coordinator. Familiarity has
been a factor in most of this off-season's quarterback moves as
Grbac, Kitna (Cincinnati Bengals), Doug Flutie (Chargers) and
Matt Hasselbeck (Seahawks) also were reunited with men they had
worked with previously. (Green, pursued by the Chiefs, was
brought to the Rams by Dick Vermeil, who took over in Kansas City
on Jan. 12.)

Most talent evaluators are reluctant to criticize Dilfer
publicly, but many do so privately. "He's got a strong arm, and
he's a decent athlete," says the personnel director for one AFC
team, "but he's not a real accurate thrower, and he doesn't make
good decisions." A source familiar with the Cowboys' thinking
says that after the team released Aikman in early March, it never
considered signing Dilfer.

Although he turned only 29 on March 13, Dilfer, a starter for
most of his seven NFL seasons, of which he spent the first six
in Tampa, is being downgraded by some teams who believe he won't
get any better. The Cowboys, for example, were attracted to the
potential of Leaf, the second pick in the 1998 draft, whose
brash behavior and sloppy play during his three seasons with the
Chargers made him a leaguewide target for mockery. As of Monday,
however, trade talks with the Bucs had stalled. Dallas's list of
possible replacements for Aikman includes 27-year-old Tony
Banks, whose poor play in Baltimore led to Dilfer's ascent
midway through the 2000 season; 36-year-old Steve Beuerlein, a
former backup in Dallas who was released by the Carolina
Panthers on Monday; and Randall Cunningham, the Cowboys' backup
last season, a free agent who turns 38 on March 27.

It's true that Dilfer won ugly in 2000. To his credit, he threw
only one interception in four playoff games, and during his last
nine regular-season and playoff starts the Ravens trailed only
twice after halftime, for a total of eight minutes. But Dilfer's
47.9% rate of completion in the postseason, lack of mobility and
occasional awkwardness led to his banishment from Baltimore.
Those deficiencies, which also were a problem in Tampa, killed
Dilfer with other teams too. "We don't mean any disrespect to
Trent--though I think he sees it that way--but we saw a couple of
quarterbacks who we felt would give us a better chance to win
consistently," Cavanaugh says. "Our offense wasn't as explosive
as it had been the previous year, and Trent's completion
percentage for the last four games put a lot of strain on our
defense and special teams. I think Elvis is a naturally better
thrower."

Grbac may be a better passer, but is he a better leader? Dilfer
was more popular in the Baltimore locker room than two-way
pagers. In the week leading to the Super Bowl, numerous Ravens
told Dilfer how much they appreciated the sacrifices he had made
to help them win. Says Baltimore defensive end Rob Burnett, "Did
most of us want Trent back? Absolutely. In addition to being a
winning quarterback, he's a first-class person who touched a lot
of people in that locker room. But having been in this business
for so long, nothing shocks me. Teams always covet what they
don't have."

The question is, Will any organization covet Dilfer? Concerns
about accuracy and mobility particularly hurt his stock with
coaches who run variations of the West Coast offense, though the
Panthers remain a possibility. A better fit might be the Redskins
and new coach Marty Schottenheimer, who favors a ball-control
attack; incumbent starter Jeff George may prove too much of a
risk taker for Schottenheimer's taste, and Dilfer would be a
plausible insurance policy. "Trent's a guy who can manage the
game and give his team a chance, and he's a leader who might win
that team over," says another AFC personnel man. "That's what
will appeal to a guy like Marty. He'll try to manage Dilfer the
way he did Steve DeBerg in the late '80s and early '90s."

Whether or not he ends up less than an hour's drive down the
parkway from Baltimore, Dilfer promises he'll land on his feet.
"Trent has never been happier," insists Michael Sullivan,
Dilfer's agent. "We're talking about someone who has made more
than $25 million in the NFL, and he has won a Super Bowl ring.
He's just looking for a quality experience, and while he's
surprised there haven't been more opportunities so far, he's not
the least bit concerned about the future."

In the meantime Dilfer is hanging out in Fresno, where on Feb. 3
he was honored with a parade and given a key to the city. And
when the taped telecast of the Quarterback Challenge airs on CBS
in July, viewers will watch Dilfer beat out such highly regarded
pure passers as the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning and the
Buffalo Bills' Rob Johnson. While recounting the competition last
Saturday night, Dilfer, often criticized for his inability to
throw deep, laughed about having won the long-ball portion of the
competition with a 72-yard heave.

Shortly before hanging up, Dilfer added, "Look, I play to
win--period. That is my job."

Now, if only he could get one.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Mixed reviews In four playoff games with the Ravens, Dilfer threw only one interception but completed just 47.9% of his passes. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO

Numbers, Please

Trent Dilfer carried off the Super Bowl trophy, but Elvis Grbac
and Brad Johnson got the big free-agent contracts. Stack Dilfer's
stats over the past four seasons against those of the two passers
whom the Ravens courted, and the telltale numbers are Dilfer's
lower completion percentage and quarterback rating plus a high
risk of interception.

ATT COMP PCT YARDS TD INT QB RATING

Johnson 1,437 884 61.5 10,293 62 45 84.5
Grbac 1,548 897 58.0 10,643 66 47 80.6
Dilfer 1,285 722 56.2 8,405 65 48 77.5

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)