TAMPA - They had a dream, a pipe dream as it turned out.
Tampa Bay Bucs fans figured that with Trent Dilfer gone, with Shaun King at the controls and Keyshawn Johnson going deep and Warren Sapp's defense putting up zeroes, well, hey, why not Tampa Bay playing in a Tampa Super Bowl?
The Bucs, of course, didn't make it. Didn't have enough offense to even come close.
Trent Dilfer made it and, boy, that has Buc fans sticking pins in their Tony Dungy dolls.
Not that Dilfer had all that great a year, statistically, at quarterback for the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens. All he did was win and now he's in the Super Bowl, the latest in a line of ex-Buccaneer quarterbacks to land in the NFL's title game. Do the names Doug Williams, Steve Young and Chris Chandler ring any bells?
No matter that Dilfer was the first of them to be picked for the Pro Bowl while wearing a pewter, red and orange Tampa Bay uniform. No matter he went 38-38 as a Buc starter, that he played on two playoff teams.
No, it was an inefficient offense that always held back those defense-strong Bucs teams, that prevented Tampa from winning championships. And that was Trent Dilfer's fault.
Tampa Bay fans, surely egged on by a critical media, eventually learned to blame the 6-4, 230-pound Dilfer for everything.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-75? Dilfer's fault.
The Everglades drying up? Dilfer's fault.
Citrus crop destroyed by weather? Dilfer's fault.
So now Dilfer, a seven-year veteran from Fresno State University, is playing for another defensive-minded team in Baltimore, a team that has exhibited less offense than even the worst of those Tampa Bay teams he led, and Dilfer is in the Super Bowl.
“There will be those who will try to embarrass the Bucs and Tony Dungy and make it look like they messed up,” said Baltimore coach Brian Billick, whose team will arrive here tomorrow for next Sunday's game against the New York Giants. “Trent doesn't feel that way and I don't feel that way. Sometimes a player is just a better fit somewhere else.
“What I find interesting is the (Tampa) media was as ardent and as critical of Trent as any quarterback I've ever seen. They'll be the ones now who will flip it around and aim their criticism at Tony and the Bucs organization. I find that comical.”
Dilfer suffered a broken right clavicle in the Bucs' 11th game of the 1999 season and it turned out to be, in the words of one pundit, a mercy killing. King, then a rookie, took over and led Tampa to a 5-2 finish, the second loss coming against favored St. Louis by an 11-6 count in the NFC championship game.
Confident they had found their man in King, the Bucs released Dilfer after the season. He signed on with Baltimore as the backup to Tony Banks.
But the Ravens bogged down in October, going four straight games without a touchdown, and Banks was benched in favor of Dilfer.
His first start was another TD-less game and a loss to Pittsburgh, but the Ravens are 10-0 since.
“I'm happy for Trent,” said Dungy, Tampa Bay's head coach. “He's doing all the things you need to do to win. (The Ravens) are playing great defense, he's taking care of the football and he has come in and given them a spark in that they have won 10 straight games.
“I always thought Trent was good enough to take a team to the Super Bowl. I'm glad that he's proving me right. I just wish it would have been us.”
Baltimore's 10 consecutive wins have not been the result of offensive artistry and Dilfer's critics will wonder if a team can win a Super Bowl with a quarterback who finished the regular season ranked 20th - 1,502 yards, 12 TDs, 76.6 passer rating - among the league's 31 starters at the position.
After all, in 40 playoff possessions, the Ravens have put together exactly one drive that has included more than two first downs.
His ex-teammates are not among those critics.
“It was a hard road for Trent,” said Bucs offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch. “We all lived through the negative fan and media criticism he endured. So from a personal standpoint, I'm thrilled that he's coming back to Tampa Bay and is 60 minutes away from being a Super Bowl championship quarterback.
“The guy was always and will always be a fighter. He will do anything to win a football game. My wife said that besides me, there is no one else she would rather see playing in the Super Bowl than Trent Dilfer.”
After Baltimore won last Sunday's AFC championship game at Oakland, a game in which Dilfer released a short pass to tight end Shannon Sharpe that resulted in the longest touchdown passing play (96 yards) in NFL postseason history, Tampa Bay safety John Lynch punched in the numbers for Dilfer's cell phone and caught him on the team bus going to the airport.
“He said to me, `I wish I could share this with you,'” Lynch said. “It was a nice moment and I could tell that he was extremely happy.
“Trent went through a lot of adversity while he was the quarterback for the Buccaneers, so to see him having this kind of success, you can't help but be happy for the guy.”
Dilfer has never been happier, probably, than on the plane ride from Oakland to Baltimore. He said nearly every Ravens teammate came by to offer a pat on the back.
“Every one of them said how happy they were for me and they weren't just being polite,” he said. “They understood what I have been through and they were able to appreciate it.”
Despite all he experienced as Tampa Bay's quarterback and aware of the irony of returning to Raymond James Stadium as a Super Bowl quarterback, Dilfer is handling it with class. There's no bitterness, no gloating, no “take-that” for Tampa Bay's fans.
“Obviously, I'm excited,” he said. “I think the greatest lesson I've learned in life is that you can't run from adversity. You have to let it hit you straight in the face.
“I'm very thankful for my six years in Tampa. I would not trade one experience I had there because it made me the man you see today.”
In one regard, Dilfer figures the Super Bowl will be like a home game.
“The boos will be familiar,” he said.
The Cleveland Browns added Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach Mike Tice to the list of candidates they will interview for head coach this week.
Tice has been a Vikings assistant coach since 1996. In his 14-year NFL career as a tight end with Minnesota, Seattle and Washington, Tice caught 107 passes for 894 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Browns defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will interview early this week, Tennessee defensive coordinator Gregg Williams tomorrow, New Orleans offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy on Tuesday, and San Francisco offensive coordinator Mary Mornhinweg on Wednesday.
Browns president Carmen Policy said he will wait until after the Super Bowl to interview Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.
Policy said he might interview both New York Giants coordinators (Sean Payton, offense; John Fox, defense) but has not yet asked the team's permission.