Nowadays, if you ask any football fan who is the most intriguing rookie quarterback in 2015, most will probably tell you it's Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston.
21 years before Winston was drafted #1 by the Buccaneers, Tampa drafted another high profile college quarterback who put Fresno State football on the map. His unbelievable 1993 college season included 30 touchdowns and only 5 INT's. He also led the Bulldogs to an upset victory over USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl.
That man was Trent Dilfer.
Fresno State has had their share of high-profile pro players, whether it be Derek Carr, David Carr, current Buccaneer Logan Mankins, Marquez Pope or Ryan Matthews. Fresno State knows how to make high-quality NFL talent. Former college coach and short-time Buccaneers offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford played there, as did current Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
But if you are going to look at the guy who made the first big splash into the NFL, it had to be Dilfer. His stellar play during that 1993 college campaign caught the eye of many NFL talent scouts, who knew that this kid had the intangibles to make it in the NFL.
When Bulldog quarterback Mark Barsotti broke his leg during the middle part of the 1991 season, coach Jim Sweeney decided he needed someone to replace the Senior, who was having a tremendous year, throwing for 17 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
At the time, Sweeney heaped praise on the freshman Dilfer.
"He's big, reckless and strong," he told the Deseret News before a game against Utah State in 1991. "He's going to be a great quarterback. Whether he's a great quarterback in Logan (against Utah State), I can't tell you."
It took Dilfer a few years, but eventually he became the man at Fresno State, setting an NCAA record of 271 complete passes without an interception between the 1992 and 1993 campaign. You could tell this kid was going to be something special, and I'm also sure he didn't have to pay for a meal or drink during that time.
It was also around this time that the national stage took notice of Fresno State. In the 1992 Freedom Bowl, the Bulldogs were matched up against the heavily favored USC Trojans, whose lineup read like an NFL team. Rob Johnson, who spent time with the Buccaneers as a backup during their Super Bowl year in 2002, was their quarterback. They were also led by former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest, receivers Johnnie Morton and Curtis Conway, and cornerback Jason Sehorn. Many writers and experts did not give Fresno State much of a chance.
Boy, we're they wrong.
Not only was it a major upset, but it was kind of a convincing victory, 24-7. Dilfer passed for 164 yards in that game, and Lorenzo Neal ended up winning the Game MVP.
The next year was magnificent for Dilfer. His QB rating was 167.2 and his completion percentage was just as good, completing 64.1% of his passes. However, lady luck was not on the Bulldogs side in their bowl game, as they fell to Kordell Stewart and the Colorado Buffaloes 41-30 in the 1993 Aloha Bowl.
Trent Dilfer's College Career
After a nice college career, it was clear that Dilfer was ready to take the next step. In 1994, many experts including Mel Kiper Jr. had the Indianapolis Colts (who had 2 picks in the first round) selecting San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk and Dilfer.
However, that didn't happen.
The Colts did select Faulk, but then decided on Nebraska linebacker Trev Alberts with their second first round pick, which Kiper heavily questioned.
Indianapolis GM Bill Tobin decided to answer.
"Who in the hell is Mel Kiper, anyway? I mean, here's a guy who criticizes everybody, whoever they take. In my knowledge of him, he's never even put on a jockstrap, he's never been a player, he's never been a coach, he's never been a scout, he's never been an administrator, and all of a sudden, he's an expert. Mel Kiper has no more credentials to do what he's doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor's a postman and he doesn't even have season tickets to the NFL."
The stuff of legend.
Tampa Bay, who had some bad luck in not protecting star quarterbacks (see Steve Young and Vinny Testaverde), were destined to find the next star QB. So, with the sixth pick in the '94 draft, the Bucs selected Dilfer.
It wasn't smooth sailing for the first few moons. Dilfer only played in a handful of games in 1994, throwing for a TD and 6 INT's. The next year was rough as well, as he threw for 4 scores and 18 interceptions. And the year after that, 1996, wasn't exactly a breakthrough performance, as Dilfer's TD-INT ratio was 12-19.
For Dilfer, it was like a Charles Dickens' novel. It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.
"It's still a special place, for sure. My wife and I fell in love with Tampa", Dilfer told the Tampa Bay Times Tom Jones in 2011. "We have great memories there. We had some great times. And some hard times, too. But we really enjoyed it. I regret that I didn't play better for a lot of the time I was there. But I don't regret going through it all because it did make me who I am today".
Despite the rough play for the first couple of years, GM Rich McKay and new coach Tony Dungy were patient enough to realize Dilfer had some real ability that could help the Buccaneers if he was equipped with a proper offensive line.
Their patience paid off.
In 1997, the Buccaneers, who had come off a 6-10 campaign a year before, quickly became one of the best teams in the NFL. They were led by one of the greatest defenses to ever play in the NFL-Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Hardy Nickerson, Ronde Barber and John Lynch. Their offense wasn't bad either, led by Dilfer, running back Warrick Dunn, fullback Mike Alstott, wide receivers Reidel Anthony, Horace Copeland and Karl Williams, the Bucs finished 10-6, good for 2nd in the NFC Central.
In the playoffs, the Bucs showed they were for real by beating Barry Sanders and the Lions 20-10. The next week, they were sent back to earth courtesy of the eventual NFC Champion Green Bay, 21-7. Despite losing in the playoffs, Dilfer had a pretty nice year, throwing for 21 TD's and 2,555 yards. He also made the Pro Bowl for the first and only time in his career.
After the success of 1997, the Buccaneers had even bigger expectations for 1998, including winning their first NFC Central championship in almost two decades. However, it wasn't to be. The Bucs lost a lot of close games, finishing 8-8, and barely missing the playoffs.
1999 proved to be a much better year for Tampa Bay football, but not Dilfer. During a game against the Seattle Seahawks, Dilfer suffered a broken clavicle, and was replaced the rest of the season by Shaun King. The switch helped the Bucs finish 11-5 for their first division title since 1981, and advanced to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to the St. Louis Rams 11-6.
Looking for a new start, Dilfer signed with the Baltimore Ravens to be used as a backup behind Tony Banks. However, when Banks went down to injury, Dilfer was called upon to lead the Ravens. Even though he had just an average year (12 TD's, 11 INT's for a 76.6 QB rating), it didn't matter who the quarterback was on the Ravens. They had one of the greatest defenses ever, led by Ray Lewis, Sam Adams, Rod Woodson and Tony Siragusa. The Ravens basically knocked out their opponents every time they played them, allowing only 165 points, the fewest in a 16-game season ever, as the Ravens finished with a 12-4 record.
In one of the most anti-climatic Super Bowls ever, the Ravens destroyed the Giants 34-7, and brought Baltimore their first NFL Championship since the days of Johnny Unitas. With a Super Bowl title under his belt, you would think the Ravens would want to re-sign their starting quarterback.
You would be wrong.
Not long after the Ravens won the Super Bowl, they cut ties with Dilfer, making way for free agent Elvis Grbac to sign a 5 year, $30 million contact with Baltimore.
Dilfer eventually caught on with the Seattle Seahawks, where he would serve as a backup to Matt Hasselbeck. He then would make stops in Cleveland and San Francisco, where he retired in 2007.
With his playing days over, Dilfer decided to transition to the next phase in his career, which involved broadcasting. He joined the NFL Network while he was playing in 2006, providing expert commentary while his team was eliminated from the playoffs. He stayed with the network until 2008, when he signed with ESPN, where he currently serves as an NFL analyst.
Was he the best quarterback in Buccaneers history? Most people would say that honor goes to Doug Williams, but what Trent Dilfer brought to the table was an amazing desire to win, although it took 3 years before that happened. He also was part of a culture change in Tampa, as the team started to develop a winning attitude during his tenure there.
And for that, he has an important place in the 39 year history of the franchise.