-- When Trent Dilfer steps onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon as the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, he will face the team that unceremoniously dumped him just weeks after he helped it to its only Super Bowl victory. The Baltimore Ravens, in their 10th anniversary season, will be faced with a reminder of the franchise's crowning moment and their struggle to find a reliable replacement at the position.
Dilfer took over at quarterback for the Ravens nine games into the 2000 season. He lost his first start and then directed Baltimore to 11 straight wins, including a 34-7 victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. The perception was the Ravens, with their dominating defense, won in spite of Dilfer, and five weeks after the Super Bowl, they signed quarterback Elvis Grbac and allowed Dilfer, a free agent, to leave.
"Obviously I disagreed with the thing. I've never shied away from saying that," Dilfer said during a conference call with Baltimore area reporters. "It wasn't my decision. All I could do is disagree and move on. You have two choices in life: You can get bitter or you can get better. I've always tried to get better. I've used the disappointment of that experience and the lessons I learned while I was there and tried to become a better person and player."
Dilfer, who joined the Browns in the offseason, is a full-time starter for the first time since the 2002 season, when he started six games with Seattle. He continues to win games; the Browns are a surprising 2-2, with a win at Green Bay and a 13-6 loss at Indianapolis. Dilfer, who has a 20-8 record as a starter since 2000, has been solid, completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,040 yards, 6 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
He says he is healthier than he was when he was with the Ravens, and that he has become a better drop-back passer because of the years he spent running a West Coast offense in Seattle.
The Ravens chose not to re-sign Dilfer and pursued Brad Johnson (who ultimately signed with Tampa Bay) and Grbac. Dilfer, 33, told reporters in Cleveland he heard from only one member of the Baltimore organization in the weeks following the Super Bowl: then-offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh.
It was Cavanaugh -- now the offensive coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh -- who let Dilfer know the Ravens decided to go with a different quarterback; he reached Dilfer by phone as Dilfer and his wife were on their way to an awards ceremony.
"He said, 'You're not gonna believe this. I can't explain it. But you deserve to know,' " Dilfer said.
Coach Brian Billick anticipated he would be faced with questions about Dilfer this week, so he explained the organization's thought process in his weekly online diary, writing that the team needed more offensive balance in order to defend its championship. Grbac was seen as an upgrade; he was coming off of a Pro Bowl season in which he threw for more than 4,000 yards with the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I regret that the circumstances presented itself that Trent Dilfer was not with us going forward," Billick said Wednesday. "He's an outstanding young man. We are appreciative of what Trent did when he was here. But we did our analysis."
The Ravens have never publicly second-guessed their decision, and Billick is quick to point out that in 2001, the Grbac-led offense ranked 14th in the NFL in total yards (320.3 per game), the highest ranking in Billick's tenure as head coach. Baltimore averaged 207.1 yards passing, the only time under Billick the Ravens have averaged more than 200 passing yards per game. The Ravens went 10-6 and lost to Pittsburgh, 27-10, in the first round of the playoffs.
"There were some positive things to what we did," Billick said.
Grbac was responsible for 23 turnovers -- 18 interceptions, of which three were returned for touchdowns, and five fumbles -- and he was never really embraced by the Baltimore fans, who occasionally booed him. Perhaps most significant, he was not viewed as being the leader that Dilfer was.
Even now, those Ravens who played alongside Dilfer referenced his leadership skills when asked about him this week. (For instance, running back Jamal Lewis said he remembered "his leadership in the huddle, and how he drove us and pushed us to do better as an offense.")
Grbac chose to retire rather than restructure his contract following the 2001 season, forcing the Ravens again to search for a quarterback. Current starter Anthony Wright is the sixth quarterback to start for Baltimore since Dilfer's departure. The Ravens have committed to former first-round pick Kyle Boller, who was uneven in his first two seasons in the NFL and is currently sidelined with a hyper-extended right big toe.
Dilfer, for his part, has moved on.
"I think the greatest disappointment was not getting to go back and be with those guys I had grown so fond of and developed a bond with and go through the challenge of trying to repeat, which would've been an awesome challenge," said Dilfer, who made a brief appearance on the field when the Seahawks faced the Ravens in Nov. 2003 in Baltimore. "That's life."
Ravens Notes: Safety Ed Reed and defensive end Terrell Suggs were fined $15,000 apiece by the NFL for impermissible physical contact with a game official during Sunday's loss at Detroit.
Reed, the defensive player of the year in 2004, was upset following a cut block by Lions tight end Casey FitzSimmons during an extra point attempt and grabbed an official. Defensive back B.J. Ward attempted to separate Reed and the official and was ejected from the game. Ward, an undrafted rookie, was not fined.
Suggs was ejected after reacting angrily when he was called for roughing the passer in the third quarter. He got in the face of referee Mike Carey, and his face mask bumped the bill of Carey's cap. Suggs apologized to his teammates for his behavior and told reporters he reacted wrongly. But he still seemed upset with the way the game was officiated.
"It was one third down after another," Suggs said. "It kept building and compounding. "