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As he left the field following the Jaguars' 21--14 loss in Atlanta on Dec. 28, Byron Leftwich was visibly upset that his rookie season had come to an end. It wasn't the loss or Jacksonville's 5--11 record that ate at him. It was the feeling that after a 1--7 start, he and the Jaguars were just turning a corner when the schedule ran out. They had won four of their last eight games, a youthful defensive front seven had thrown up a brick wall, running back Fred Taylor had rushed for a team-record 1,572 yards, and Leftwich himself had shown flashes of brilliance after taking over for Mark Brunell in Week 4. The seventh pick in the 2003 draft, Leftwich finished with 2,819 passing yards and 14 touchdowns in 13 starts.
For all his poise and savvy, the 24-year-old Leftwich was like a kid in a batting cage who had run out of tokens just when he had found his rhythm. "The Atlanta game was the first time I saw the whole field," he says, still shaking his head at the memory. "That was the moment where I was like, I get this now. The team had so many good things happen in the second half of the season, I was just happy to be a part of it. Now that people are behind us, we can't shrink from [the raised expectations]."
Indeed, the Jaguars' late-season showing has several pundits making them the dark-horse pick in the AFC South. The hopes of north Florida rest largely on the shoulders of Leftwich, and after an off-season spent toning his body and honing his skills, he is the team's unquestioned leader. "To replace the only quarterback this franchise had known wasn't easy, and Byron handled it great," says second-year coach Jack Del Rio. "We'd hoped to groom him for a year, but Mark's injury [a gash on his passing elbow that required stitches] forced our hand."
Leftwich took over at a time when he was still developing into a drop-back passer. At Marshall, Leftwich had operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun. The Jaguars, however, employ a power-running game with almost no use for a shotgun formation, so Leftwich had to learn to make his reads while stepping away from under center. "To learn how to drop back and read defenses on this level is really difficult," says offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, a former NFL quarterback. "Some guys never learn it. For Byron to learn it on the fly was incredible."
"At first I was struggling to see my receivers, to see what the defense was giving me," Leftwich says. "But as the season went on, the field opened up."
The other thing he discovered as a rookie was that he had to get serious about his fitness. During the off-season Leftwich changed his diet (forgoing "pretty much everything I ate before," he says. "If it tastes good, I'm no longer eating it") and sleeping habits (the self-professed night owl upped his rest from between four and six hours to eight). By the time he reported to camp this summer, he was better prepared for the rigors of the NFL, which had "caught me by surprise," he says. "I'd never been that tired." To improve his stamina, he increased his number of lifting sessions and added a daily battery of footwork drills. The result? Leftwich arrived in camp about 15 pounds lighter than his listed weight of 245.
With Leftwich on the fast track-- Brunell was traded to the Redskins in March-- Jacksonville needs the defensive line to develop similarly. Anchored by tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, the unit was most responsible for the Jaguars' holding opponents to a league-low 3.2 yards per carry in 2003. But the release during the preseason of last year's starting ends, Tony Brackens and Hugh Douglas, means an untested linebacker corps and a suspect secondary will be under even more pressure. Rob Meier and Paul Spicer, a pair of fifth-year players with a combined 16 career starts and 11 sacks, are the new starters at end. They'll be entrusted with helping improve a pass rush that produced just 24 sacks a year ago.
No wonder Del Rio laughs off predictions that his team will be the first to play in a Super Bowl in its hometown--the Feb. 6 championship game will be held in Alltel Stadium. "To talk about a Super Bowl...," he says, not bothering to finish the thought. "Look, we haven't had a winning season since 1999. How about a little perspective, you know?" --J.E.