Leftwich excited about new offense
In a year that could determine his future in Jacksonville, Byron Leftwich has no doubt that he'll bounce back in a big way this season, writes Len Pasquarelli.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- One way or another, the 2007 season will be a make-or-break campaign for Byron Leftwich.
And you can take that to the bank, because Jacksonville's starting quarterback will be dipping into some franchise's vault and making a major deposit to his account by next spring, no matter how the season plays out.
So either Leftwich performs well enough to have the Jaguars make the playoffs, then breaks the bank here with a monster contract extension. Or the four-year veteran makes a few mistakes along the way, Jacksonville misses the postseason for a second straight year and then Leftwich is allowed to depart to sign a contract elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent.
Leftwich prefers, however, to be cashing checks signed by Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver this time next year.
"People bring up the [financial] element and, frankly, that's not what really motivates me," Leftwich said after a recent training camp practice. "I came here to win. This team used the [seventh overall pick in the 2003] draft to bring me here to win games. So there's still a lot of business for me to finish with this franchise."
In a sense, Leftwich is starting anew in Jacksonville, where he was once beloved but now has been belittled at times.
Following a rocky 2006 campaign in which he was benched and then underwent season-ending and long-overdue surgery on his chronically problematic left ankle, Leftwich was named the team's starter by coach Jack Del Rio in February. He now has a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter. A new quarterbacks coach in Mike Shula. A new and trimmer body, having dropped considerable weight -- he refuses to say how much -- in the offseason. And a new, retooled set of mechanics to shorten the long stride he used to step up into the pocket.
What Leftwich does not have is a new, streamlined delivery and his motion remains elongated and sometimes tardy. Nor, of course, does he have a new contract. Or even the promise of one from the Jaguars, who have so far been reluctant to approach Leftwich or his representatives about commencing negotiations. Such uncertainty, however, has not dented his confidence or blunted his enthusiasm.
Under the stewardship of Koetter, a former Boise State and Arizona State coach who is entering his first NFL season, Leftwich will be operating in a system designed for him and, more significantly, by him. During the offseason, Leftwich had significant input into the Jaguars' revised playbook, and he worked hard to rehabilitate his ankle and cut down his stride. Although he is still not a passer who could throw from a telephone booth, Leftwich doesn't need as much room to step up now, and his more compact footwork means Jacksonville's offensive line won't have to fret as much about holding blocks.
"The way I see it, I'm the one who's the rookie around here," said Koetter, who along with Shula carefully scrutinized hours of videotape of Jacksonville quarterbacks before recommending that Leftwich be No. 1 on the depth chart, ahead of David Garrard. "(Leftwich) knows what he likes and doesn't like. And he knows the things with which he's most comfortable. He should have some say-so."
Indeed, what was supposed to have been a five-minute get-acquainted session between the men, shortly after Koetter took the job, grew into a two-hour discussion of offensive philosophy. While he will never utter a disparaging word about departed coordinator Carl Smith, Leftwich is thrilled with the design incorporated by the revamped offensive staff.
While Jacksonville's offense remained balanced and features a running game that includes the terrific tailback tandem of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, Koetter is a quick-strike guy and the passing game will get more vertical.
"Dirk just feels like, in every game, the defense is going to make seven or eight mistakes, and that gives you seven or eight opportunities to make big plays," Leftwich said.
Coming off two seasons in which he started a total of just 17 games (six of which came last season), it's the ebullient and engaging Leftwich who has come under siege of late in a city that once fawned over him. Even in his first year as the starter, when he replaced Mark Brunell, Leftwich ascended quickly to being the face of the franchise. More recently, though, the ardor toward him has waned.
His starting record in four seasons is 24-20. He has never played a full 16-game schedule. The ankle woes -- which date to his final year at Marshall -- have been a hindrance. And last year, the ankle provided a convenient excuse for Del Rio, whom Leftwich has endured a respectful but often tenuous relationship with, to replace him after a particularly tough stretch.
Del Rio admitted this summer that the demotion of Leftwich, publicly pinned on the ankle injury, created an awkward situation. And earlier this week, Leftwich reiterated that he felt the benching and Jacksonville's direction at quarterback were poorly handled.
There are still some in the Jacksonville organization, including members of the coaching staff, who felt the team should have retained Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator instead of letting him leave after the '04 season, gone to a West Coast-style offense and installed Garrard as starter. Just watch a few practices and it is obvious that Garrard, a five-year veteran, throws a tighter ball.
But give credit to Del Rio and Leftwich for not allowing past differences get in the way of potential progress in 2007. Del Rio is placing renewed trust in his quarterback.
"I had our coaches come in, go through the tape, and study all our guys," Del Rio said. "And we all came to the same conclusion -- that Byron gave us the best chance to win."
One of the misconceptions about Leftwich, probably attributable to his size (6-foot-5, 242 pounds), is that he has a strong arm. That's not the case, in part because his exaggerated delivery and his release point probably takes something off even his best fastball. But there are quarterbacks who have succeeded in the NFL with far less arm strength.
The other notion that dogs Leftwich is that he is a virtual statue in the pocket. In a recent interview with USA Today, that knock got a laugh from Leftwich, who contended he is not the slowest quarterback in the NFL, just the "slowest black quarterback" in the league.
Leftwich, 27, obviously, is not beyond self-deprecation. But this year, perhaps steeled by the criticism and girded by the reality that his time may be running out in Jacksonville, Leftwich appears to be even more self-confident.
It's obvious that his confidence has been transferred to the field. In a recent evening practice session, he completed 16-of-20 attempts and demonstrated good touch and solid command of the huddle. He was 7-for-10 for 78 yards in the Jaguars' preseason opener last week, throwing one touchdown pass in the three series that he worked. And his accuracy, which was 58.7 percent in his first four seasons, has improved.
"He's never going to have the greatest, most compact delivery, but the ball gets there," Koetter said. "I really believe Byron is going to have a great year."
No one believes it quite as much as Leftwich, who insists his repaired ankle is 100 percent. Staying healthy and getting back to the status he enjoyed two years ago are important to him. But winning is a bigger priority and Leftwich, who last year in an interview with ESPN.com labeled himself "The Machine," said The Machine has been successfully overhauled. And, he noted, his future is in the hands of the man he feels most secure entrusting it to.
"I'm not a gambler," Leftwich said, "but I don't mind having the dice in my hands. In fact, I kind of like the feel of them there. Hey, at make-or-break time, there's no one else I want to be rolling them."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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