LANDOVER, MD. — Trent Dilfer has a smile on his face as he makes his way around the locker room, tiptoeing between piles of dirty uniforms and rallying the troops after a particularly tough game. He gives one player a pat on the back. He whispers words of encouragement to another. He jokes with the journalists who are standing around waiting for a quote.
"Watch out, watch out, naked man coming through!" Dilfer says, even though there is a towel around his waist.
His team, the Seattle Seahawks, has just dropped another game, this time to the lowly Washington Redskins, by a score of 27-14. The playoffs, all of a sudden, look as distant as a 60-yard field goal into the wind.
And, once again, Dilfer is caught in the middle of a quarterback controversy.
Wherever he goes, no matter how many games he wins, it seems like Dilfer is in the eye of a storm. He's battered and beaten, put down and booed.
"Life's hard, and football's hard," Dilfer says. "It's a hard league we play in, and a lot of bad stuff happens. When the bad stuff happens, you can allow it to make you stronger, or you can allow it to build up on top of you and drag you down. I try to stay positive."
Few quarterbacks in the history of the game have been on a bigger roller-coaster ride than Dilfer has. He was a lightly regarded high school player in California; few colleges were interested in recruiting him. At 6 ft., 4 in., and 225 pounds, he looked more like a linebacker than a passer. Fresno State, however, took a chance on him, and he became one of the most prolific passers in the nation.
As the 6th pick in the 1994 draft, Dilfer went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It might as well have been back to square one.
He carried great expectations, but got pounded during his first few years. At one point, in 1996, his quarterback rating was an incredibly low 15.7 (compared with a 173 rating his final year at Fresno State). The fans loved to hate him.
In 1997, however, his touch reappeared, almost as fast as it had left him. Dilfer led the Bucs to the playoffs, was named to the Pro Bowl, and had Tampa Bay fans beginning to think they had a star on their hands.
The following year, the Buccaneers had Super Bowl aspirations, but finished a disappointing 8-8. Dilfer shouldered the blame, and was booed by fans and torn apart by the press. In 1999, he injured his shoulder and lost his starting job to Shaun King. Coach Tony Dungy had finally lost confidence in Dilfer, and the Bucs let him go at the end of the season.
Then new life came from a new team - the Baltimore Ravens - and things really turned weird. The Ravens were moving along with a 5-3 record when Dilfer was called on to replace an ineffective Tony Banks. Dilfer lost his first game as a starter, but after that he became magical.
He won 10 straight, and then won one more, the Super Bowl, a 34-7 rout of the New York Giants. The game was played in Tampa. It could have been sweet revenge under the noses of the people who once booed him, but Dilfer never rubbed it in.
His play during the Super Bowl was not sensational, but his leadership was. He avoided mistakes. He let his team play to their strength, defense.
Then he vanished. Gone in the time it takes to make a front-office conference call. It was the kind of personnel decision that has become common in the free-agency era. The Ravens opted not to re-sign Dilfer, and instead pursued free agent Elvis Grbac, a more established passer but not necessarily a more established winner.
Dilfer held the Lombardi Trophy above his head on one day; the next day, he was unemployed.
Now he is with the Seattle Seahawks and seems much older than his 29 years. Coach Mike Holmgren has committed to third-year quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and Dilfer is learning to accept the role of backup. It's a thankless job spent reviewing game film, practicing with the scout team, and being ready to step in at any second.
"My first priority is to be the best backup in the league and help Matt in any way I can," Dilfer told reporters in August.
Hasselbeck, however, is struggling, as are the Seahawks, with a 3-4 record. Two of their wins came while Hasselbeck was injured and Dilfer filled in - running Dilfer's streak of consecutive victories as a starter to 13. Last week, Dilfer came off the bench in the second half to try to give the team a boost against the Redskins. He moved the ball for one nice score, but struggled down the stretch.
After the game, Dilfer was approached by Tony Banks, the same Tony Banks whom Dilfer had replaced in Baltimore. On this day, Banks had sparkled as the Redskins' starter, and now he was coming to offer an apology to Dilfer.
"He was such a great backup to me," Banks earlier explained to reporters. "He helped me as much as he could. But when I was made the backup, I wasn't the same to him. If I had to do it over again, I would be a better backup to him."
So it goes for Dilfer. He's kept his good attitude. He's gone from star to benchwarmer without a foul word.
As for his future with Seattle, nothing is settled. No doubt, Hasselbeck is looking over his shoulder. No doubt, he should be. A proven winner is lurking in the shadows.
"I don't start predicting things," Dilfer says with a shrug. "I just do what I'm told. I try to play good."