Super Bowl Spotlight Falls on QBs

Trent Dilfer isn't John Elway and Kerry Collins isn't Joe Montana. Not even close. Their skills aren't close and neither has the superstar sheen.

They do have resilience.

``What the two of us have in common, I think, is that we've allowed adversity to sharpen us as football players,'' said Dilfer, who will quarterback the Baltimore Ravens against Collins and the New York Giants in the NFL title game on Sunday.

``Most of all, we've let adversity make us better persons.''

In the case of Collins and Dilfer, adversity is relative.

Dilfer's was on the field, where he washed out after six years as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who took him as the sixth overall pick of the 1994 draft. He was so highly regarded that when Indianapolis bypassed him, at No. 5, it led to an on-air debate between ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. and Bill Tobin, who was the Colts' personnel director then.

Dilfer's play with the Bucs made Tobin look good for passing on him. He was mediocre at best, was replaced as the starter last season by Eric Zeier and then Shaun King, and was finally released.

Collins' troubles were far more serious.

The first-ever draft pick of the Carolina Panthers, fifth overall in 1995 after an outstanding career at Penn State, he was a success almost immediately. Collins led the Panthers to the NFC title game in his - and their - second season.

But behind the success were huge problems.

Collins was an alcoholic who could never stop at one beer. Even in that dream second season, he clearly lacked the confidence of a star NFL quarterback - stammering, rarely looking people in the eye, clearly unsure of himself.

``I was described as 'a lost soul.' I think that was very right,'' he said Monday evening during a remarkable 45-minute session in which he publicly exposed his deepest scars, describing himself as estranged from a dysfunctional family which will come together for the first time in years at Sunday's game.

The first sign came in 1997, when he used a racially charged word to a black teammate during a party at the end of training camp. ``I was very intoxicated. I was just trying to be a funny guy,'' he said. ``In my polluted mind, I thought it would bring out some sense of camaraderie.''

Midway through the next season, Collins walked into the office of Dom Capers, who was the Panthers' coach, and said he wanted to be benched. He was cut instead, adding the label ``quitter'' to ``drunk'' and ``racist.''

He signed with New Orleans, was arrested for driving under the influence and was photographed swaggering down a street, cigar in hand, after his release from jail.

Redemption came slowly.

He was released by the Saints after the 1998 season, and ordered into rehab by the NFL. The Giants, who had gone through Dave Brown, Danny Kanell and Kent Graham following Phil Simms' retirement, took an expensive shot on Collins with a four-year contract worth $16.9 million.

New York immediately put Collins under the care of their team psychiatrist, Dr. Joel Goldberg, who Collins cites as one of the most important figures in his comeback.

By the second half of last season he was the starting quarterback and this year threw for 3,610 yards, third best total in team history. He added 381 yards and five TD passes in the 41-0 win over Minnesota that got the Giants here.

``I've been around some of the best quarterbacks in the game,'' said his coach, Jim Fassel, who mentored Elway in Denver. ``Kerry ranks right up there with them in ability.''

Dilfer, meanwhile, signed with Baltimore in the off-season to back up Tony Banks, who had led the Ravens to five wins in their last seven starts in 1999.

But the turnover-prone Banks began to struggle and the Ravens began to stumble, going five games without scoring a touchdown. Their defense was so good that they won the first two, but in the second half of the fourth TD-less game, Dilfer replaced Banks.

The Ravens still didn't score the next week, a 9-6 loss to Pittsburgh. But they've won 10 straight since, including three in the playoffs. All featured one big play to Shannon Sharpe from Dilfer, whose mandate from coach Brian Billick is to play cautiously and let the defense force turnovers.

This week is different.

Not only has Dilfer returned to the scene of his past failures, but he will face a New York defense that a year ago forced him into what he calls ``the 10 worst minutes of football I've ever played.'' Those minutes included two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, after he had given up an earlier TD when he was sacked and fumbled.

For Dilfer, this week started with a dinner with three of his former Tampa Bay teammates - Zeier, safety John Lynch and tight end Dave Moore.

``They told me a lot of encouraging things,'' he said. ``I don't want to disclose all of them, but I will say that John Lynch told me 'I never met a player who wanted to win so much.

Dilfer also recognizes that careers can be short. The Ravens are expected to try to sign Washington's Brad Johnson in the off-season and if they do, Dilfer is likely to be a backup again or go somewhere else.

But no one can take away this moment. From either quarterback.

``There have been a lot of quarterbacks who aren't superstars who have won Super Bowls,'' he said. ``But if you win, you get the label 'Super Bowl quarterback.' After Sunday, either Kerry or I will have that label.''
AP-NY-01-24-01 1629EST