Trent Dilfer: From 'terrible' teammate, to Super Bowl champ, to QB renaissance man
What a life it's been for the former Bucs QB. He gritted through more pain than anyone realized in Baltimore's Super Bowl season. He sparked a QB TV revolution. Now, he wants to change kids' lives.
Maybe when you hear his name, you think of the up-and-down Tampa Bay Buccaneers career or the Super Bowl title in Baltimore or the stints in Seattle ‘n Cleveland ‘n San Francisco or his work at ESPN or — today — his life as a high school football coach at Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, Tenn.
However you slice it, what a quarterback life it’s been for Trent Dilfer.
Dilfer accomplished a lot as a player, of course. After a brutal start, he finished with 20,518 yards, 113 touchdowns and a 58-55 record over a 14-year career. One generation likely remembers Dilfer most as the QB on the Ravens’ 2000 Super Bowl team and the next likely remembers Dilfer as the first former player on TV to truly teach the quarterback position to a national audience.
He’s still talking football weekly on FS1 but Dilfer’s newest life passion is working with high school kids.
In this week’s conversation, Dilfer gets into everything:
How he hopes to make an everlasting impact on kids’ lives at Lipscomb.
Why he calls himself the worst player in the NFL in ’95 — a “bad leader,” a “bad teammate,” a bad… everything. (And how he turned it around.)
The injuries nobody knew he played through that Super Bowl season in 2000. You will cringe. It was not pleasant.
How he led a quarterback revolution on television. It all started as early as 2002, too.
The next trend that could take over the NFL.
We know you’re coaching, Trent. What has that experience been like? When did you make the move into coaching?
Dilfer: Two years ago. I turned down a ton of NFL and college opportunities while I was at ESPN. My wife and I talked about it when we were empty-nesting. I don’t want to call it a mid-life crisis. It was a mid-life reset. I didn’t have purpose. I was kind of self-indulging, playing golf every day, living the lie of the American dream being retired. And I just felt like I was being called to something bigger. I just felt called to helping build something that was dead, and that’s what it was: it was dead. And we’ve built it back in two years, to a state championship caliber program.
Where was the program when you got there and how did you bring it back?
Dilfer: I’ll give you some bullets. They had 38 kids, six lifting weights with PVC pipes. They had won three games the last three years. GPAs were down. A lot of disciplinary issues in the program. And in two years, we have 110 kids. We’ve gained a lot of resources. We got into the state semis my first year and the state finals this year. We beat our rival who we haven’t beat in 10 years in the regular season. We’ll have about 16 kids in college the last two years getting full-rides. More importantly, we helped breathe life and energy into the school. The school had 78 kids as their admissions goal when I got here. Now, we have a waiting list.
We’ve seen you on ESPN breaking the game down. You could coach at any level and really do anything you want with the knowledge you have around this game. But this is what really filled that void? This gave you that purpose?
Dilfer: Yes. For sure. All of that good football stuff, nothing compares to the multiple families who have sat on my couch and sought life advice. And the kids that are dealing with mental health issues. And the kids that were barely surviving and now they’re thriving. To be able to coach like I parented. My philosophy in parenting and coaching is “You’re awesome… but.” So I always find something to affirm the kid. We’re wonderfully made inside — there’s something awesome in all of us — so I try to point that out. And that opens their ears and allows for correction. And growth.
The world sells us so short. There’s so much negativity. There’s so much ugliness. There’s so much identity crisis. There’s so much labeling. We try to peel that all away and just say, “You have the potential to be amazing.” And then the football takes care of itself. And if I got hired in the NFL tomorrow, I would use this model. I have no interest in that, but I would use this same model. Because this is really — and I don’t mean to sound preachy here — but this is really what our world needs.
When you look at the world today, what do you see? And how does this all fight against that?
Dilfer: We talk about it all the time. We are super transparent with our families. There was no diversity when I got here. We are massively diverse. But more importantly to me, diversity to me is thought diversity, political diversity, socio-economic diversity. We have massive diversity when you look at diversity as not just ethnicity. We talk about it all the time: “Everybody raise their hand whose parents watch CNN.” Some hands go up. “Everybody raise their hand if they watch Fox. Everybody raise their hand if they have a Trump flag in their front yard. Everybody raise their hand if they have a Biden flag in their front yard. OK, everybody who was born in Africa, raise your hand.” And we’ve got four of them. “Raise your hand if your parents are millionaires.” We’re just like, “Listen, what makes us beautiful is that we’re different. Let’s start asking each other the Why? instead of standing on your high horse. So let’s just start asking the person next to you their Why. Why do they believe things? What has their life experience been? Ask Jimmy who grew up in Africa, and just got here three years ago. Ask Micah who was a child slave in Africa. Ask him what his childhood was like.”
And we do it. We get after it. We don’t spend hours on it. We just make them aware that our world is broken and we better start asking each other our Why? and start having empathy and appreciating that we don’t think the same way.
Our instinct in 2020 is to beat each other over the head with a club if somebody disagrees with you. Something has to change so maybe doing this, at the level you are, can impact some lives. That’s all you can do, right? Person to person, try to impact a life to change this trend.
Dilfer: We have kids who will play in the NFL. I mean they are legitimate, big-time prospects. And we have kids who may not play a high school snap. And we say, “You can equally change the world.” I said this before we took our team picture: “It’d be really cool to have a time capsule for this team picture and open it in 10-20 years. And I guarantee you, we have CEOs, we have lawyers, we have Congressmen, we have professional football players, we have social workers. This group is going to change the world. For the better.”
At Lipscomb, how is it so diverse?
Dilfer: When I got here, what had happened is the school just lost its way. It became very elitist. It just was not attractive. It had no energy. It had no spirit. It had lost its way. Now, we’re K-12. The lower school was starting the trend of building back. But the upper school just had nothing. And when I came in, the first thing I preached was, “Diversity. But, please, it cannot just be perceived as ethnic diversity.” I made that very clear that we can’t put ourselves in a bubble. It can’t be a bunch of Church-or-Christ white kids. We’ve got to open our arms up to middle Tennessee. That’s what we did. I think it started because I immediately hired a bunch of coaches that weren’t from here, that had nothing to do with Lipscomb Academy.
All of a sudden, we became attractive to people who never even considered this school. Because the private school industry in middle Tennessee is very competitive. There are a lot of really good options, and we were the least of them. Now, we’ve become the best of them. What comes with that is you get inner-city families that want to be a part of this. We’ve had out-of-state move-ins where the family moves to Nashville to come here.
There were 38 kids in the football program — 38. Not varsity. The program. Six were lifting weights with a PVC pipe because they were not strong enough to rep out the bar. Now, we have Luke Richesson — who’s our strength coach — who’s probably the most renowned NFL strength coach of the past 30 years. He won a Super Bowl with the Broncos. He was with the Texans. He walked away kind of like me, wanting to do something bigger than making money and having a cool title. So he brought his son here and his daughter. His son’s my quarterback. And he has developed this culture of human performance.
It sounds like you love it. It’s rewarding. It’s everything you want right now in life. Let’s look back at the playing career. Do you look back often?
Dilfer: Probably as little as any person you’ll talk to. I will say this: I lean on it every day. So I lean into the lessons learned and the regrets and the victories — not just on gameday. There’s so much good that came from my 14-year career. So much of that good came from setbacks. I use all that, and I did it on TV, too. I was a teacher. My thing on TV was I taught. I tried not to get into the debate game. I tried to teach the game so people could better understand it. A lot of that teaching came from my learning. I learned because I sucked at times.
I started in football at 10 when I was a ball boy to my stepdad. So, I’ve been in it for 38 years, 365 of my life. At every level. I’ve learned the things that matter in football and how to teach them, and a lot of that comes from my playing days. A lot of that comes from the coaches I played for. Sam Wyche, Tony Dungy, Brian Billick, Mike Holmgren, Norv Turner was a huge influence on my life, Monte Kiffin, Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Jack Del Rio, Lovie Smith, Herm Edwards, Jim Zorn, Clyde Christensen might’ve been the most influential person in my life.. I established great relationships in the quarterback community. I’m not besties with Tom Brady but I’ve learned a lot talking to Tom. I’ve learned a lot talking to Brett (Favre). Steve Young is one of my best friends. (Matt) Hasselbeck. Almost anything good that I have, I’ve stolen from one of those people.
And it’s easy to forget but you come in as a sixth overall pick. Expectations are so high. And that ’94 Tampa team isn’t exactly what it was a few years later. How did you handle those expectations coming in? Those first two years were probably pretty tough.
Dilfer: Brutal. Brutal. I was the worst football player in the NFL in Year 2. In 1995, I was the worst. It was just terrible. I was a bad leader. I was a bad teammate. I was a bad player. I was a bad husband. I mean, I was just bad. I was lost. I don’t know why. I’ve reflected a lot on it. More than anything else, I played the victim card. That’s another life lesson. A lot of people are playing the victim card these days. Instead of controlling what I can control, I lamented on all the things that weren’t going my way. Dysfunction in the organization. Poor skill players. Offensive line’s not good. Whatever it is. All excuses. But instead of just handling what I could handle, I got caught up in other stuff.
Tony Dungy coming in — and Rich McKay, because he was partnered with him — gave me the leash. And the leash was, “Hey, you’ve got a little while longer to figure this out. We see all the talent. You’ve done some good things. But you have to start worrying about you.” And slowly, I began to get it. First thing, I became a much better teammate. If you talk to the Sapps and the Lynches and the Brookses and the Dunns and the Alstotts, those guys, that was the biggest thing. I became a better teammate.
So you were a bad teammate?
Dilfer: I was just selfish. I was whiny. I was complain-y. It was everybody’s fault but mine. Insecure. Maybe that’s the easiest way to say it. I grinded it out and I was very, very proud when I left in ’99. I knew they were on the cusp of the Super Bowl. I knew the defense was established. I knew offensively they just needed to tweak a few things. I wanted to be a part of it but I was too expensive and Shaun King was cheap.
That ’99 Bucs team, you were playing well. You were 7-3 as the starter…
Dilfer: I had that Ironman streak going. I was second to Favre in consecutive starts — 70-something. I took great pride in that because I played hurt so many times. One of the ways I became a better teammate was earning my teammates’ respect for all the things I played through. And I got benched after a win. We beat Chicago in Week 6 and I missed open receivers, played jittery, afraid to make a mistake. I kind of regressed for a couple weeks. I opened the season poorly, got better, and then regressed a little bit. I deserved to be benched. And Eric Zeier got hurt his first start. So then I’m coming back in Week 8. And it was like a light went off. The benching was one of the best things to ever happen to me because I really did look close in the mirror and re-establish a love for the grind and played really, really well the next… I think we won four in a row.
And I break my collarbone in Seattle and I’m done. And I fight hard to come back and maybe I’ll get cleared by the divisional round. And I was but I wasn’t. Shaun didn’t play well but he kind of… was. He did his thing. And the defense carried us. And we get to the NFC Championship Game. I wanted to come back but I was due a ton of money. I was due this giant option. Contracts were done differently — they’d have to buy my last two years. And that would’ve put me in the top 10, 15 of the league. And they just decided to let me go to free agency and that’s how I got to Baltimore.
If I’m running a team, though, that NFC Championship doesn’t come down to a Bert Emanuel “Did he catch it? Did he not catch it?” situation, if you’re the quarterback. That game (an 11-6 loss) was the Bucs’ to win. You were a couple plays away in the passing game.
Dilfer: In my heart of hearts, I believe that. But it doesn’t matter. They had kind of moved on. They had a vision for where this was going to go. Now, they were wrong. I will say this: The one thing I told people was time will tell whether Tampa was right and whether Baltimore was right by letting me go. And I rest in the fact that they got worse when I left — until Gruden came in. And Baltimore got worse after they chose not to re-sign me. That’s my only thing that gets me bowed up. I don’t get bowed up very often. I can’t be “gotten” on Twitter. You can’t get under my skin. But just because I said it at the time I said then, “Listen, I’m wise enough now. I know life to a certain degree. I know only time will tell if they’re right or wrong.” And time has told the story on both accords.
Tony gets fired. Gruden comes in. Brad Johnson comes in, who’s a version of me. They win a Super Bowl.
When you’re there in Baltimore — and you get your shot, and you’re leading this team to a Super Bowl — is this all a motivating factor for you?
Dilfer: I was so grinding that year because I was hurt the whole year. So I’m coming back from the collarbone. I was a shell of what I was the year before — before the injury. My arm was maybe 70 percent of what I was the year before. I was relearning all of my biomechanics because the collarbone was very severe. It grew back over itself. So all of the musculature, the joint, everything had changed in my throwing arm. Then I got osteitis pubis, which is when your groin and hip flexor calcify in the pelvic joint. It’s a hockey injury. And I had it on both sides. So I could barely walk after practice. It was every day. I was in tears in the morning when I’d go to work. But I wasn’t telling anybody because I had just gotten the job from Tony (Banks). I was like, “I’m not going to tell anybody this and have him come back in. Because we’re so freakin’ good, anybody can play quarterback for this team.”
So you’re going through this pain and literally crying and not even telling the trainer?
Dilfer: I never got treatment on it during the whole season. I kind of faked it as a groin thing. An ab thing. So they were treating the ab and treating the groin. And I never let them know how much pain I was in. It was stupid because — and I never asked Brian (Billick) and Ozzie (Newsome) this — but they probably went back and watched practice, when they were going through free agency and I was awful on days. There were days I couldn’t play high school quarterback. And to their eyes, they’re probably thinking, “This guy’s done. He is damaged goods. We’ve got to move on after this. Let’s just get through the season.” Well, then I would rally and get some juice for games, adrenaline, whatever and I played pretty well for most of them.
But I think they couldn’t get past their minds of what it looked like on a Nov. 23, Wednesday, when it’s 42 degrees out there and I’m dirting slants. Like, NFL quarterbacks don’t do that. I would go weeks without dirting a ball. And all of a sudden, I’m missing things. I mean, it was awful.
So I kind of understood. When I sat back and thought, “How did they make this decision?” They should’ve asked, obviously. They should’ve brought me in and said, “What’s going on? Let’s look at this.” But they probably just said, “He sucks. He can’t do this.” Because a year later, Mike Holmgren is telling me, “You throw a football as good as I’ve ever seen.”
There has to be a part of you — when you’re going through this pain in 2000 — that wants to get this fixed, right?
Dilfer: I got it fixed in Seattle (in 2001). I get to Seattle, and I’m going through training camp, and it hits me again. I go to the doctor and now I’m a back-up to Matt Hasselbeck. I signed a cheap, little contract. I was just trying to rehabilitate my career with Mike Holmgren. I could’ve gone to the Rams to be with Martz and been behind (Kurt) Warner or I could’ve gone to the Seahawks and Matt was traded for to become the starter — but they were real honest with me. They said, “Listen, we didn’t know you were going to be in free agency when we traded for him. So we feel like we’re getting two starters. Now, he’s going to get the nod because we’ve got a lot invested in him,” but Mike was like, “I’ve done this with Montana and Young, Majkowski and Favre. I’m willing to see where this thing goes.”
I’m a back-up and I go, “I’ve got to figure out what’s going on with me. I can’t lift weights. I can’t get out of bed. I’m limping around.” And a trainer there could tell something was off. He said, “Your body isn’t working right. He clued the doctor into it and they did an MRI or an ultra-sound or a CAT scan — I can’t remember which one, they all confuse me, I’ve been in so many of them. They’re like, “Holy crap, you have a hockey injury.” I’m like, “What?” So I had to get these injections. They had to… put me in a girdle and they took a 15-inch needle full of Lidocaine and Cortisone and stuck it in my groin. On both sides. It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced.
And then I had to get Lidocaine shots when I started playing because Matt wasn’t playing well, so I went 4-0 that year with this injury. But by midseason, now my body was working. I was able to lift. I was able to have balance in the pocket. Everything was starting to work again. It felt like the beginning of ’99, the end of ’98. I’m ripping it. And Holmgren is like, “Holy smokes, who is this guy?” And that’s why I got the big contract the next year.
Just to backtrack, in Baltimore, when you’re going through that pain, I imagine a lot of guys just get a shot of Toradol, right?
Dilfer: Yes. And it’s a different era of football. Especially that team. Think about that team and who my friends are. Tony Siragusa. He’s not going to tell you if he has a hemorrhoid. Shannon Sharpe is in his 14th year. Harry Swayne. Rob Burnett. Qadry Ismail. Rod Woodson. These are dudes. You don’t whine. It’s just different. Nobody now can understand it because we’re in this new… and it’s probably better. I’m not criticizing the new generation of football culture. But, now, you take care of yourself more than the team. Now, it’s “You’re an entity, you make sure you’re a thoroughbred, you have to make sure you’re right.” And training methodology is better. Medicine’s better. More oversight with doctors. Agents are more powerful. The NFLPA is more powerful.
All of these things have helped players. But in 2000? You don’t say a whole lot. Yeah, you do get Cortisone put in your ankle. Yeah, you do take Toradol three times a week. Not just on gameday. Yeah, Vicodin wasn’t a bad thing back then. You just did things — and I regret it — but it is what it is. You just did those things. I’m in the ice tub every day with the guys and you’re not going to whine and complain. Another part of that year is, before I became the starter, I tore my lateral meniscus in practice. And I suited up the next week. As the back-up. Because that’s what you did. Because Chris Redman is a rookie and we’re playing Jacksonville. And if Tony gets banged up, you don’t want to put Chris Redman in there.
So are you really not telling the trainers where your pain is because you don’t want them to know what you’re going through, too?
Dilfer: I thought it was a hernia. My little, dial-up Internet search and my friends in the medical world I was calling, I said “This is what I’m going through?” and they said, “Yeah, it’s probably a hernia.” Well, if you have a hernia surgery, you’re going to miss “X.” So, I’m like, “Is it going to burst? Am I going to die?” And they’re like, “No.” So I thought I had a hernia.
You win a Super Bowl, and it’s wild today. Any quarterback who wins a Super Bowl, that’s a legacy that lasts forever. And when somebody mentions your name, it’s always “But Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl…” Does that piss you off when people talk about it in those terms?
Dilfer: It hurts. I wouldn’t say it pisses me off. But it hurts because they don’t have context for it. I don’t identify as a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. I think in professional sports right now, so many people — fans, coaches — identify with what they do, and I identify with who I am and what I’m going to do.
When somebody says it in a hurtful way… it only hurts when it’s somebody I respect. I would say there’s been a handful of times where I’ve heard that said and it’s somebody I respect, and it does. It hurts. Because I respect them to appreciate what we were able to accomplish. But, I also have grace and know they don’t have context for it all either.
You hit some big throws through that postseason, too.
Dilfer: My biggest validation, more than plays, is what my teammates feel about me and what they’ve said about me. When they’ve publicly stood on the table — Ray and Rod and Shannon, as three prominent voices in TV over the last decade. They’ve stood up multiple times. When we went back for our 10-year anniversary and when we have our 20-year anniversary (Thursday) night, those things are validating. That fills my heart with how my teammates responded. And then the coaches. My heart is full enough from that to trump any hurt from the negative stuff that’s said.
On to Seattle, you just keep playing and doing your thing. You’re surrounded by all these great coaches and quarterbacks and, at some point, you cross over to become the preeminent quarterback czar, guru, savant — choose whatever word you want — when did you embrace breaking down the position with the nuance you do?
Dilfer: 2002. I’m the guy. I got the contract. I’m Holmgren’s guy. There couldn’t be a better person to be their guy than Holmgren, right? I’m learning. I’m feeling good. Things are going right. The trajectory’s up. It felt like ’97 in Tampa where good things were ready to come. And I tear my Achilles in Dallas, the game Emmitt Smith breaks the rushing record. It was one of those moments where I knew I was never going to be the same. When you see your Achilles rolled up into your calf and you can’t move your foot? My trainers were honest with me. They said, “You’ll never be the same athlete. Nobody who comes back from an Achilles is the same. You can get close.” Vinny (Testaverde) had it so I called Vinny. And Vinny was like, “You’ll have to adjust some things. You’ll be a different player when you come back.”
I really wanted Matthew to be successful. I lost all my money. It was one of those deals where I had these accelerators in my contract based on playing time. And because it happened in Week 8 instead of Week 11 or 12, I lost like $10 million. And I wasn’t getting it back. So after the first couple of weeks of sticker shock, I realized, “OK, the value I can have here” — and I really appreciated the organization — so I said, “I’m going to help Matt become the guy.” I start pouring into Matthew as a friend and as an assistant quarterback coach to Jim Zorn.
And one of the ways I felt like I could be a big help was studying the position more. And we’re just getting into the golden age of quarterbacks. It’s 2002 and Brady’s coming on, Peyton’s coming on, Favre’s still in his prime. So I just start studying guys. I just had this hair up my ass and said, “I’m going to take 1983 — the greatest quarterback draft of all-time — and I’m going to study those guys first.” Once I got through that group, I said, “OK, I’m going to study anybody who’s ever won a Super Bowl.” And then I did Pro Bowls. I just started this file of all the things they did. And then it hit me: Instead of trying to figure out, “OK, that guy does that, that guy does this,” what commonalities do they have? And I just became obsessed with it. Now, I had three kids at the time. My wife was awesome. As a player, I stayed at the office until 9 anyways. We had that agreement — during the football season I worked and in the offseason I was hers. So I would just stay at the office for relentless hours studying.
That’s when the learner in me took over. I just started studying this stuff and finding ways to teach it. And really teach coaches how to teach it. I get a little esoteric sometimes with kids. They need granular stuff. But I found there are great coaches around the country that are dealing with all types of kids and they’re probably better teachers than me for that age group — so I started teaching them what I learned. It really became a passion to take what I’ve learned and give it back. We’ve seen a massive change since 2007-08 in the quarterback development business.
And you were at the forefront of it. When you’re playing, you have your job as a back-up quarterback. And then you’re spending all of these extra hours studying all of this film and all of these quarterbacks. What does that look like? How late are you there at the facility? Because, like you said, you had this agreement with your wife: “You’re not going to see me much at all.”
Dilfer: There were long hours those years. Take the middle of 2002 — towards the end, let’s say Week 12 on. And then the whole offseason because I’m in there every day rehabbing. So that offseason was rehab and studying. And then you get into 2003 and I can play again but I’m a back-up. And if you’re a sponge, you can learn a lot of football just in your normal week prep. Say we’re playing the Rams and they just played the Colts. You’re watching the Colts defense and you’re watching Peyton Manning. So I’d put a little note down: ‘Today, let’s watch Peyton, shotgun, play action.’ I just started doing projects. It was project after project after project. Then, that’s ’03, ’04 and in ’05 I get traded to Cleveland. I felt I was ready to play again. I went to the general manager and said, “I think I can be a starter again. I’m doing great in practice. Holmgren thinks I’m back. I know it’s not great for you all but can you trade me?” I wanted one last crack at it.
When I sign with Cleveland in March, my family doesn’t move with me. So I have the entire offseason in Cleveland where I literally lived at the facility. So I get there at 6 and I’d leave at 9 or 10 at night. Every day. Because I had no family and I was lonely and I didn’t want to go back. I’m not a guy who goes out and parties. One, I wanted to make it work in Cleveland. Two, I was on this quest to know everything. That was a fruitful year in Cleveland. I end up hurting my knee and getting traded to San Francisco because now it’s “I’ve got to get my family somewhere where I’m going to raise my kids.”
They had Alex Smith and knew they needed a mentor. So, boom, I’m the logical guy. I was the Fitzpatrick of that time, right? A guy who could play if he had to but you’re there to groom the next guy. Now, I’m with Norv which is one of the best things to ever happen to me. Because I was able to take all of this that I had been learning and now I could jet it off Norv about Aikman and the guys he had coached. And he’s a junkie now, too. Norv is a junkie. We’d sit there and watch tape. And now I’m working with Alex Smith and teaching him how to prepare. Alex was not hard because he’s as hard a worker as anybody. So it was easy to get Alex to watch three extra reels of film after a Wednesday practice. He wasn’t married at the time so he had nothing to do. We’d stay there until 8 or 9 showing him how to watch third downs, what to look for.
We now call it the “lonely work.” That’s how I communicate it to kids because nobody knows you’re doing it. It’s lonely. You don’t get credit for it. There’s no Instagram post about it. Only you know you’re getting better. But it just became part of my DNA — I loved doing the lonely work.
And then you get into TV.
Dilfer: TV was the best thing that happened because I didn’t want to be a TV guy. I wanted to be a teacher. So I had to find every week, something that differentiated what I was going to do on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday than all the other talking heads. I had access to all the tape. At the time, there was no NFL Game Pass. You couldn’t sign up for $59.99 and watch the All-22. I was one of the very few people in the TV industry who had the All-22.
I would just grind out 8 in the morning to the time I picked the kids up. That was the deal: I’ll pick them up, I’ll take them to their sports, I’ll go to their games but, mid-day, I have a job. The funny joke, like calling those Monday Night Games, you use 1 percent of what you prep for. One percent. Max. That was the same way for what I was doing at ESPN. I was prepping all week long like an NFL quarterback — or more so an NFL coach because I’m looking at defensive schemes and techniques. All day, every day. Going to ESPN with all these ideas and getting 90 seconds to say it. So I had to become really creative with my word bank. I spent a lot of time developing a nomenclature to speak the game — arm talent, anticipatory accuracy, horsepower, twitch, emotional regulation, tying your feet to your eyes, eye discipline, changing arm angles, gun-barrel poise, how the ball finishes with energy as opposed to dying. I had to find a way to package a lot of big thoughts into quick snippets.
While I’m doing this, I’m doing the Elite 11 in the offseason to take all the stuff I’m learning and give it to coaches who are better teachers than me with that age group. I could show them on video — “Here’s where I got this.” And I’d show Aaron Rodgers, Dan Marino, five guys and say, “Look at the commonality here. How do you think they got there?” … And then these incredible young coaches take it and roll with it. Now, you’ve got Kevin O’Connell, who’s an offensive coordinator with the Rams. You Jerrod Johnson, an up-and-coming superstar with the Colts. And you have Charlie Frye who just got the Miami Dolphins’ quarterback job. There’s other guys in the college game. They deserve all the credit but it was so fun to share my journey, in a way, to help pour gasoline on their development.
You can feel that energy, that passion. Taking your game and your knowledge to Elite 11, to ESPN, it had to reach a whole new level.
Dilfer: I watch a lot of NFL because I still talk about it on Mondays. But I don’t watch a lot of the shows. But I do appreciate when I watch Matthew or Tim (Hasselbeck) or Dan Orlovsky — he’s one of my favorites. Now, Kurt Warner is becoming more in the X ‘n O world. Now we see the evolution of guys teaching the game instead of just getting into an argument.
Steve Young told me this. Steve had done it for 10 years before I got there. Steve and I traveled together often during our time at Monday Night Football. The first year we worked together, he said, “Holy crap. You’re actually coaching.” I said, “Yeah, that’s my mindset.” He said, “Nobody does that.” John Madden was the best of all-time because he was a coach who kept it simple. You don’t get TV people who are coaching the audience. And I just took pride in that. Now, I look at it and I think there’s a lot of guys coaching on TV.
I’d take that over anything else said on these networks 100/100 times. Obviously you’re coaching, you’re with your family, you’re still doing this with Colin Cowherd but does any part of you miss all of that?
Dilfer: I still enjoy looking through another lens. I try to track trends as much as possible. I remember when the Air Raid started hitting — I said, “There’s a lot of value to this.” There’s a lot of value to guys taking a lot of shotgun reps. From high school to college to the NFL. Well, then, I started seeing it turn. What’s coming is all these defenses are adjusting to these spread looks. What you’re going to see is more tight sets, under center. More turn-your-back-to-the-defense and put the ball in the belly of the back, draw linebackers up. More run looks. Because now those are hybrid linebackers — not big thumpers.
It’s fun to stay ahead of what the arguments are going to be. I remember getting into huge arguments with (NFL GM) Trent Baalke — he’s one of my best friends — about the running quarterback. I’m like, “No. I get it. Nobody’s going to be able to come in and be a true zone-read guy in the NFL. But to discount the unique player that can do that effectively, stay healthy, what it does in the secondary is unquantifiable. You cannot quantify how simple of looks Lamar Jackson gets on first and second down. One of the best tapes I ever did at ESPN was on Colin Kaepernick — I said “Here’s the why.” Yes, we know he’s running zone read. We know it’s new. We know he’s a great athlete. We know it’s dynamic. Anybody can tell you that. Here’s why you get so many big plays out of the tight end, Vernon Davis, in the passing game. Because defenses had to react to this threat of this quarterback running the zone read. Because of that, there’s like three defenses they can play. If you give any quarterback three defenses, he’s going to shred you.
This is why I still like doing some media. Do I miss the job of the media? Hell no.
What is that next trend coming? Whether it’s quarterback play or offensive football?
Dilfer: The next thing that’s coming is an old thing. You’re seeing it with Shanahan, Reid, McVay. It’s going to go back to shifts and motions with the ability to go under center and in shotgun because it creates different conflicts for the defense. And this isn’t new but you’ll see more of it: Changing gears. Everybody knows how to play against a team that plays fast now. Everybody knows how to play against a team that plays slow. But what you’re starting to see and what you’ll see a lot more of is the ability to do both.
You’ll see teams huddling and sprinting to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball before the defense can get set. Now you’re taking what Chip Kelly brought with the high-tempo stuff and adding another layer of confusion. If you can run out of the huddle and snap the ball, they can never get their calls right. It messes up the substitutions and the overall thinking.
It seems like Kansas City mixes it up.
Dilfer: No doubt, no doubt. Them, the Titans, the Rams. A lot of pre-snap motion. I think they ran 70-something plays and 50-something of them had pre-snap motion. The Niners are incredible because they shift with motion. A lot of guys try to do it and aren’t effective. But the guys who understand the why behind the conflict it puts the defense in are the guys who have success doing it.
Personnel-wise, you’re going to see more Kittles. You saw it with the Raiders — Waller. You’ll see more hybrid, route-running, motion tight ends that also… you don’t need the in-line guy with how the running game has changed. He becomes more effective than the Edelman slot because of his length and because of his ability to block in the run game and get out in action.
And here’s what I think — and I’m going to run this at my program — I think the sixth offensive lineman body that can catch the ball with an eligible number, the 285-pound tight end, that’s what I think is coming. Because defenses have gotten more hybrid’ish and if you take a guy who can actually catch a ball. He doesn’t have to be a great route runner. But if he has bend. If he’s got Gumbyism. If he’s Gumby’ish — and has that type of power — there’s no answer. Because now, he can block a defensive end. He can crush a linebacker. And he can go post up a secondary guy and move the chains.
There’s nobody like that.
Dilfer: They’re coming. And they’re Polynesian. They’re coming. I’ll give you a version of that in high school: D.J. Uiagalelei, the quarterback for Clemson, his younger brother is one of the top defensive end prospects in all of high school football. He might be No. 1. Watch him play tight end. He’s 6’6,” 250 and he’s a rising junior. He’s got a stupid vertical leap. He runs 4.8.
Your next JJ Watt, who went to defensive line, why move him to defensive line? That is coming. Now, add that with shifts and motions. Add that with a Waller-type with the Raiders. Add that with bursting out of the huddle and not knowing what side he’s going to be on. Think of basic, Laymen terms: We’re going to run the ball over the tackle and tight end. That’s the play. You’re going to base your defensive front off of our tendencies. You’ll add another player in that gap. Now, you have to do all that in two seconds when we burst from the huddle. And that’s 330-pound Trent Brown and 285-pound JJ Watt — whoever it is — who also can catch a ball, rolling over your front. And that might be a 255-pound Shaq Barrett for Tampa (on defense). And that’s the double-team.
That’s my guess for where it’s going. I know I’m going to do it. We did it last year.
Chiefs/Bucs. I’m talking to a former Buc but let’s hear it.
Dilfer: The Chiefs can play bad and still beat you. Their floor is so much higher than everybody else. So prediction-wise, if they play well, they can’t be beat. If they execute at a high level, there’s too much horsepower. They just put too much stress on you to sustain for 60 minutes. Saying that, there’s a feeling of this team of destiny with Tampa. There’s this intangible quality that Tampa has that sounds silly to talk about. But go back to 7-5, bye week, the greatest leader who’s ever played to put on cleats has an extra week to message his team. He’s got other veteran leaders that amplify his moral authority and, all of a sudden, they completely change? They have less penalties. They’re better on special teams. They change their protection schemes. They run the ball better. Fournette gets reinvigorated. And you’re like, “Holy crap. They’ve won seven in a row.”
Bruce Arians then affirms this theory in his postgame where he says, “It took one man.” So now the head coach who has a massive ego — like we all do — is saying, “It took one dude.” Think about what that one dude probably did over those two weeks, and then had it amplified by other dudes in his corner who have been through the rigors of an NFL career. It was like, “Hell yeah. This is where we’re going. This is what we’re going to do.”
Then you add Todd Bowles who is the secret sauce to the whole thing. He’s smarter than most people. His scheme last week was mind-boggling good. He’s playing chess and others are playing checkers. He has the people to do it. And that four-man rush with Eric Fisher being out. Mitchell Schwartz is banged up. You can create a very good argument for why you think Tampa is going to win the game.
But I can’t get past magic. There is a magic to Patrick’s demeanor, his presence, his… I don’t know what to call it. He just has this magical quality to him.
This is the juggernaut offense of our time. It might end there. I’m with you on the Bucs and Brady, but…
Dilfer: Brady’s swagger right now. I’ve known Tom since he was 12. He’s never been like this. There’s that edge to him: “Watch me.” That look on his eyes and his face when they do those close-ups on him after the first touchdown to Evans. He didn’t do his fist pump or his “Hell yeah! Let’s go!” It was just, “More is coming.” And then he throws the brutal picks in the second half. I would’ve gone into a shell. I would’ve puckered up. I’m losing the game for my team. And him? It’s just water off a duck’s back.