Leftwich welcomes chance to win job
It's easy to think of Leftwich as just another quarterback hoping to win a depth-chart competition, because so many others are trying to do the same thing this summer. But what makes him different is that few of those other players have had to overcome what he has to reach this point. Leftwich went from being Jacksonville's first-round pick in the 2003 draft (seventh overall) to being released just before the start of the 2007 season. He spent the next two seasons as a backup in both Atlanta and Pittsburgh before signing a two-year deal with Tampa Bay in April.
It's fair to say teams weren't lining up for Leftwich when his contract expired in Pittsburgh. But he also only needed one franchise to see that he's ready to fight for a job again.
"I needed all those bad things to happen to me in order to get to where I am today," said Leftwich, who has started only eight games since 2006. "There really wasn't another way to do it. Looking back, I wish that things had worked out in Jacksonville, but the fact is that they didn't. There are divorces in the NFL all the time, and I'm not bitter about mine. I know that I've moved on."
What Leftwich realizes is that he can't let his past affect this opportunity. He came to the Bucs because they told him he'd receive a fair shot at the starting job. Leftwich easily could have stayed on as a backup in Pittsburgh, especially because that team had just won the Super Bowl. But that would have meant accepting a backup job once again, and he wasn't ready to hold a clipboard for the rest of his career.
Leftwich surely understands how the NFL works these days. A quarterback only gets so many opportunities to prove his value before teams view him as an afterthought. Some of those players can stick around as career backups (a future that appears to be unfolding for New York Giants quarterback David Carr), while others just vanish from the league completely (as was the case with Aaron Brooks). Though he's only 29 years old, Leftwich could have found himself on either of those paths if the Bucs hadn't given him this shot.
It's not that he lacked respectable numbers. After all, he has a 24-20 career record as a starter, and he has thrown 54 touchdown passes and 38 interceptions in seven seasons. But for whatever reason, his appeal evaporated after the Jaguars decided David Garrard would be their starter in 2007. As soon as Jacksonville dumped Leftwich, he became a man searching for a team to believe in him again.
He started three games for Atlanta in 2007 before the Falcons later decided he wasn't the solution to their quarterback problems. He had to wait until last August before the Steelers signed him. This year was no different. There was no buzz about him when free agency started, and even the Bucs acknowledge there were some concerns about Leftwich before the move.
In fact, Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik had watched Leftwich play in 2007, and that unimpressive image had stuck in Dominik's mind.
"When I saw Byron play two years ago, he was out of shape, and I really didn't know how important football was to him," Dominik said. "But I also knew that Byron was a competitor. I think that being on a championship team only made him want to do more things with his career."
Leftwich realizes that as well. Though he appeared in only six games for the Steelers, he learned plenty about how a successful franchise operates and how great players prepare to succeed. And, just as importantly, Leftwich had a chance to heal his body. After coping with a gimpy left ankle that plagued his career in Jacksonville, he discovered how nice it was to give his chronically painful joint a break.
That's another reason Leftwich feels so confident these days. "When you're banged up, you don't really get a chance to train year-round," he said. "You're always in rehab. You can't do everything that you're capable of doing. To be honest, I was just making it through games, because my ankle was killing me most of the time. That's the only part of my body that I ever really hurt [in Jacksonville], but it was a tough thing to deal with."
Leftwich also is encouraged by the offense the Bucs will run this season. After scrapping the West Coast system preferred by former coach Jon Gruden, they will rely on more play-action passing and downfield throws. That means they'll need a quarterback with the arm strength to go deep to targets such as tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Antonio Bryant. Despite all the knocks on his lack of mobility and windup delivery, Leftwich has the edge on McCown when it comes to that style of play.
Leadership is another skill Leftwich can bring to Tampa Bay, especially because the team wants to develop its own quarterback of the future in first-round pick Josh Freeman.
"Byron played early in his career, and he was fortunate to have a guy like [former Jaguars Pro Bowl receiver] Jimmy Smith on his team," said Bucs coach Raheem Morris. "We don't have a Jimmy Smith here. Byron will have to take some guys under his wing. He'll have to help other players play better. If he can do those things, he can be the quarterback of this team."
The Bucs will get their first chance to see if Leftwich can make a strong case for himself this weekend. He'll make his first preseason start against Jacksonville, and he's aware this will be an interesting contest. Though Leftwich doesn't like talking about the end of his Jaguars career -- "Let's just say I was saddened by how they handled it," he said -- it's possible this will be the most emotional game he has played in years. More importantly, it will be the last chance to start before Morris picks his first-team quarterback next week.
That's why Leftwich is less worried about sticking it to the Jaguars and more concerned with selling his coaches on his ability.
"I'm not worried about whether people remember what I can do, because I'm pretty sure they don't," he said. "All I can do is lead this team when I get the chance. If I do that, good things will happen."
Actually, one good thing already has happened for Leftwich: He has proved that all that adversity really couldn't destroy his spirit.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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