JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Leave it to Byron Leftwich, a guy who never has wanted to be defined by ordinary conventions, to offer a new twist on the age-old conflict of man versus machine. The Jacksonville Jaguars' star quarterback is The Man here, all right, but he also thinks of himself as The Machine as well.
"I never want to be laid out on the field," said the ever-candid and always effusive Leftwich following a Wednesday morning practice in which, by design, he didn't throw a single pass. "When I got hurt last year (on Nov. 27 at Arizona), I knew that it was something bad, but I was not about to be carried off the field. I walked off. Oh, I limped, definitely, but I walked off. And when guys came in the locker room and saw me -- you know, Jimmy (Smith), Fred (Taylor), all those guys -- they couldn't believe it. I saw in their eyes how they think I'm indestructible, too. It was like, 'Man, you can't be hurt. They rely on me. They know that I'm The Machine. I'm supposed to be unbreakable, you know, bullet-proof. Even after last year, with the broken ankle and all, that's still how I consider myself."
Entering his fourth NFL campaign, it's good that Leftwich possesses such impenetrable mental mettle, because his critics continue to fire verbal mortars his way.
They chide his doughboy physique, which, by the way, has shrunken by about 12-15 pounds this summer. They scrutinize, frame-by-frame, his elongated motion and long stride when he steps into a throw. Or they insist Leftwich, the team's first-round choice in the 2003 draft after a stellar career at Marshall University, isn't a winner. And they hint that, with the presence of talented backup quarterback David Garrard on the roster, Leftwich has to win big in 2006 or his perch atop the depth chart could become tenuous.
And you know how that affects Leftwich, who has thrown for more passing yards in his first three years than all but three of the 14 quarterbacks chosen in the first round over the last decade, and whose .552 winning percentage as a starter is third-best among that group?
Uh, not at all.
"He couldn't care less," said Taylor, who knows a thing or two about criticism emanating from his own home precinct. "It doesn't dent [his confidence] at all."
The Jaguars are, he will tell you without blinking, his team. And no one around here, at least no one who is cashing paychecks signed by Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver, offers a contrarian view. Certainly not publicly and only rarely in private. If there is some sentiment simmering beneath the surface that Leftwich is overdue for the breakout season, it's overshadowed by the consensus that, even with the retirement of star wide receiver and resident safety net Jimmy Smith, this is going to be the year.
And while last year demonstrated that Leftwich is human, and that he is not immune to a fractured ankle, nothing, it seems, can shatter the guy's confidence.
Not even being forced to play in 2006 with a wide receiving corps that is still as underdone as steak tartare, and which doesn't have, at least among its top three performers, a player who has caught even 50 passes in a season.
"With Jimmy, I could throw it blindfolded and complete it, because he was so precise [in his routes]," said Leftwich. "You don't often get big-play guys who are so perfect, who run every route the way it's meant to be run, but Jimmy could do that. And he almost never saw single-coverage, so it meant that defenses maybe couldn't blitz us as much, and that allowed us to dictate some things. But the young guys here will be fine. They've got their own strengths. And the offensive potential here, I think, has everyone excited. We hold each other accountable around here. We expect a lot from each other. We're going to be fine."
It is an offense that will rely not only on a youthful trio of wide receivers, but also on first-round tight end Marcedes Lewis of UCLA, to compensate for losing Smith's annually gaudy numbers. Another former Bruins star, diminutive but dynamic tailback Maurice Drew, could also play a big role. And even at age 30, and despite opening camp with a strained groin that once again has focused attention on his perceived fragility, Taylor is expected to ring up 1,000-1,200 yards.
Leftwich, still just 26 years old despite having three years of starting experience on his résumé, is quick to point out that, if the Jacksonville design allowed him, he could throw for 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns. But it doesn't, so he won't, and he can live with that, as long as he and the Jags continue to progress.
"Would I like to throw it as much as Peyton [Manning] does?" said Leftwich. "C'mon, man, show me a quarterback who wouldn't. Heck, yeah. But that's not going to happen here, and I'm fine with that. There is more than enough for me in this offense, more than enough."
Yet there is a segment that feels Leftwich hasn't accomplished enough in the offense to have established himself as one of the NFL's top-shelf quarterbacks. Those people want to see more from him. And not too surprisingly, Leftwich wants more from himself, too.
"Would I like to throw it as much as Peyton [Manning] does? C'mon, man, show me a quarterback who wouldn't. Heck, yeah. But that's not going to happen here, and I'm fine with that. There is more than enough for me in this offense, more than enough."
Byron Leftwich, Jaguars QB
"I don't think," said the retired Smith, "folks really understand how driven he is. There are a lot of misconceptions about him."
One of them, Jacksonville coaches privately contend, is that Leftwich performed better than observers think in the team's ugly 28-3 loss at New England in a Jan. 7 wild card game. Leftwich completed 18 of 31 for 179 yards, with no touchdown passes and one interception and was under duress most of the day. But in reviewing the tape of the game, the staff felt Leftwich was let down some by his receivers that day, and that his performance wasn't quite as miserable as the numbers would indicate.
Said coach Jack Del Rio: "I think that's a fair [assessment]."
Maybe it's because Leftwich is so easy-going, so incredibly cooperative off the field, that he has been tagged as not tough enough on it. But his teammates argue that he plays with passion, that he takes charge in the huddle and that there is never a sense of detachment.
Certainly, Del Rio acknowledged, there is nothing soft about his quarterback's cranium, which the Jaguars' coach has tried unsuccessfully to penetrate with reminders about protecting himself better in the pocket. It is anathema for Leftwich, who does hold the ball too long at times, to throw a pass away to avoid a loss. His game is to hang in the pocket, take hits, and deliver the ball.
Under new assistant head coach Mike Tice, the Jaguars will attempt to plug some of the leakage in their pass protection scheme in 2006 and to provide Leftwich, whose big stride does require more cushion, with ample time to throw. Del Rio, though, has spoken with Leftwich about playing more prudently, and the subject will be broached again before the start of the season.
"He tends," conceded Del Rio, "to get a little hard-headed about that stuff. He doesn't need to prove his toughness to me or anyone else around here."
Until he takes the Jaguars deep into the playoffs, though, Leftwich will still have to prove himself to his detractors, and he understands that. There are still strides to be made in his game, for sure, but there is no lack of confidence on Leftwich's part that he will cash in on his potential. Asked about what pass he could throw in his sleep, his favorite route, he laughed that familiar, big-kid laugh.
"C'mon, now, you know me better than that," he said. "I don't have a favorite route. I can throw them all. Get open and I'm going to put the ball there, just like a fine-tuned machine."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.