Jack Del Rio had second thoughts about his QB and made a decision that could save the Jags' season or cost him his job
DRAFTED AT NO. 7 in 2003, with hopes that he would become the Jaguars' franchise quarterback, Byron Leftwich instead produced 24 wins in 46 starts (0--1 in the postseason), not a single 3,000-yard passing season and much disappointment in four years with the team.
Nevertheless, the release of Leftwich last Saturday—and the promotion of longtime backup David Garrard—is either the boldest move of Jack Del Rio's coaching career or the most panic-driven.
It also suggests that Jacksonville bungled its most important personnel decision of the five-year Del Rio era. Entering the off-season Del Rio and general manager James Harris had to decide whether to leave the offense in Leftwich's hands, create a competition between the strong-armed but injury-prone Leftwich and the more mobile but less experienced Garrard, or pick a new quarter-back of the future in the April draft.
Del Rio stuck with Leftwich, believing the 6' 5", 242-pound passer would be healthy (he had missed 17 games in four seasons and was coming off November surgery on his left ankle) and motivated (he was in the final year of his contract). Leftwich, meanwhile, figured that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's scheme was perfect for him, saying two weeks ago, "Dirk will allow me to attack downfield, which is when I'm at my best. He won't ask me to be a robot. This is the best I've felt about our offense since I've been here."
Though Leftwich was shaky throughout training camp, Del Rio did not waver in his public support of the quarterback; privately, the coach began to have doubts. Leftwich has never been a good practice player, and he was, one camp observer said, awful in several noncontact workouts. After a sharp preseason opener at Miami (7 for 10, one touchdown), Leftwich, 27, bounced a couple of easy throws against Tampa Bay, then went 6 for 16 with no scoring drives in five series against Green Bay. The club source said a feeling of panic was palpable on the plane home after Jacksonville's poor outing at Lambeau Field.
Things got worse three days later, when Leftwich said, "It doesn't matter if we win and play great in all four of these preseason games." In fact, Del Rio believes that what his team does in August portends what it will do in September. Moreover, Garrard, 29, was terrific in the preseason (36 of 47, 456 yards), and Del Rio preferred Garrard's overachieving attitude to Leftwich's passive approach.
"Don't look for one dramatic moment—there was none," Del Rio says. "This decision was based solely on how the two guys played football." The coach believes Leftwich was too inconsistent and not enough of a leader. " David Garrard brings positive energy to the job and the locker room," Del Rio says. "He shows an urgency directing the offense that I like."
According to one Leftwich confidant, the passer "is thrilled to be away from Del Rio. He feels Jack never believed in him."
If the Jaguars don't make the playoffs with Garrard under center (and fourth-year man Quinn Gray as the backup), the coach will be in trouble for changing his mind so late and not protecting the franchise on draft day. If Jacksonville makes the postseason and wins at least one game in January, then Del Rio will be hailed as the cowboy who went with his gut and made the right call. Beginning on Sunday against the Titans, it will be an interesting season in Jacksonville.