Cheers, Not Jeers For Leftwich In Jaguars Victory

By Gene Frenette
Updated: September 11, 2006

JACKSONVILLE– So can Byron Leftwich get some appreciation for pulling the Jaguars out of this football abyss?

Is outshining Terrell Owens and America’s team on a national stage not enough for the persistent skeptics?

Well, if the quarterback who has struggled for three seasons to gain resounding acceptance in Jacksonville doesn’t win over his doubters after Sunday’s season-opening 24-17 victory over Dallas, then maybe they can at least cut him some slack.

Let’s be honest, it didn’t look good when the Cowboys carved up Jacksonville’s defense for 10 points on the first two drives and threatened to go up 17-0. The Jaguars were in their typical slow-starting funk.

The offense had 16 yards in the first quarter. Rain was falling. A somber mood had quickly enveloped Alltel Stadium.

Things were going so lackluster that Fox-TV sideline reporter Pam Oliver told a national audience that Jaguars players were grumbling on the field.

But over the last three quarters, the Jaguars righted a wayward ship. A reinvigorated defense, which may have lost top pass rusher Reggie Hayward for the season to a ruptured Achilles, helped by dusting off some early cobwebs.

So did the presence of linebacker Mike Peterson, who was considered questionable to play with a Grade 2 knee sprain and had a game-sealing interception.

However, in the NFL, teams mostly rise and fall on the play of the quarterback. The Jaguars pulled off only the third comeback from a double-digit deficit in the Jack Del Rio era because Leftwich was unfazed by the hole his team had dug for itself.

“Byron [Leftwich] came up to me at 10-0 and said, ‘This is what we do,’ like it was no big deal,” said Jaguars’ offensive coordinator Carl Smith. “He was clear-eyed, looking for things to exploit. He was determined he was going to find an answer.”

From a numbers standpoint (23 of 34, 237 yards), Leftwich has had better games. But given the circumstances – the doubts about his Jimmy Smith-less receiving corps, the offensive line protection woes – this might have been his finest hour.

It’s not like receivers were running wide open. Several times, Leftwich completed passes to Matt Jones, Ernest Wilford and Reggie Williams in tight man-to-man coverages.

Leftwich also had to overcome an ill-advised throw in the second quarter that was intercepted by safety Roy Williams, potentially killing the Jaguars’ first meaningful momentum.

He responded by completing his next 10 consecutive passes, totally changing the complexion of the game.

“Everyone questioned our offense. We never did,” said Wilford. “We just kept on fighting. Byron never lost focus. He stayed poised. That’s what we need as a quarterback. He has the heart of a lion.”

Sometimes, it’s hard for Leftwich skeptics to see that because they can’t get past his long stride and slow release. But when the Jaguars’ line gives him time, even with receivers who aren’t getting much separation, Leftwich has moments where he looks like a special quarterback.

Of course, it’s rarely often enough to suit the critics, but one of Leftwich’s great qualities is that he never stops believing his offense.

Sunday, with a national television audience transfixed on Terrell Owens, it was Byron Leftwich who might have opened some eyes.

And maybe, just maybe, he might win over the doubters in his own city.