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No. 1? They Beg to Dilfer : Rams Passed on Rookie, Who Is Now a Backup in Tampa Bay

December 08, 1994|MIKE REILLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Asked what he thought of Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Trent Dilfer after studying game films, Ram defensive coordinator George Dyer couldn't provide an answer.

"We don't have him on any of our films," Dyer said. "It's all been Craig Erickson."

Dilfer has only a bit role in Tampa Bay's game films--and in the Buccaneers' offense. And when the Rams and Buccaneers meet Sunday at Tampa Stadium, Dilfer will be where he was last week against Washington--on the bench.

That isn't where those who criticized the Rams for passing on him with the fifth pick in last spring's draft thought he would be at this point in the season, especially with the Buccaneers out of the playoff race at 4-9.

But Coach Sam Wyche, whose job status is tenuous because of that record and because the team is up for sale, isn't comfortable putting his coaching future in the hands of a rookie quarterback who has struggled.

Here's why:

--Dilfer has started only one game and has completed 38 of 82 passes (46.3%) for 433 yards with one touchdown and six interceptions.

--He has been sacked seven times in the five games he has played. In his homecoming gameat San Francisco, he completed only seven of 23 passes for 45 yards with one interception.

--He lined up behind right guard in an exhibition.

--He moved to the end of the bench, away from teammates celebrating a victory over Washington last week in a game that could have been a showdown between Dilfer and the Redskins' Heath Shuler, the league's other heralded rookie quarterback.

"I was rooting for the team in that game, naturally," Dilfer said. "But selfishly, it was hard for me because my rival (Shuler) was out there and I wasn't."

Last spring Dilfer gave up his final year of eligibility at Fresno State to make himself eligible for the draft. He and Shuler were the two prized quarterbacks, just as Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer had been the year before.

Dilfer, 6 feet 5 and 230 pounds, set an NCAA record with 318 consecutive passes without an interception and led major college passers with a 173.1 efficiency rating, the third-highest in NCAA history behind Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer. Scouts swooned over him.

A few days before the draft, Ram Coach Chuck Knox told reporters he would take Dilfer or Shuler if either was available, despite the fact that the team had signed free agent Chris Miller to a three-year, $9-million deal a month earlier.

Shuler was taken by Washington, but Dilfer was available when the Rams' turn came at the fifth pick. After failing to trade the pick to Dallas for Alvin Harper, they traded down to Indianapolis' eighth pick and later San Francisco's 15th selection.

They used the 49ers' pick to take Auburn offensive tackle Wayne Gandy and used lower-round picks they acquired in the trades to take defensive end Brad Ottis (second round) and tailback James Bostic (third round). Gandy starts at right tackle, Ottis plays on special teams and Bostic was inactive most of the season before going on injured reserve because of a wrist injury.

"At the time, everyone wrote that I was shocked by what happened in the draft, but I really wasn't," Dilfer said. "The Rams told me they would take me, but it was only a 50-50 chance on draft day.

"My agent had told me there was some dissension among the coaches and front office. The front office wanted me, but the coaches wanted to win right away and didn't think they could do that with a rookie quarterback.

"Obviously they were interested in a young quarterback because they traded for Tommy Maddox a few months later."

So did the Rams get the best of the deal by passing on Dilfer?

"I don't want to say anything derogatory about anybody," Knox said. "I think Trent will be a fine quarterback. He's like a lot of new quarterbacks who come in the league and struggle.

"I'm sure if he was lighting it up down there, there would be people saying we made the big mistake. There's always people who are going out to find warts on people."

Dilfer held out of the Buccaneers' rookie camp and pre-camp workouts to negotiate his contract and was rewarded with a staggering salary that landed him on Forbes' top 50 highest-paid athletes list for 1994.

He is ranked 33rd with $5.5 million in endorsements and earnings (including a signing bonus). He is sixth among NFL players behind Joe Montana ($10.3 million), Scott Mitchell ($6.4 million), Shuler ($6.3 million), Marshall Faulk ($6.2 million) and Dan Wilkinson ($6.1 million).

Dilfer began the season as Erickson's backup and got some mop-up work in four midseason games. He threw his first NFL touchdown pass in a backup role late in a 36-13 loss to Minnesota.

Wyche gave him his first start in Week 9 against the Chicago Bears, saying he wanted to give the rookie several consecutive starts to see what he could do. Dilfer completed 13 of 25 passes for 159 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in a 20-6 loss.

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