Leftwich's learning curve is a wild ride

Jaguars still optimistic despite rookie's struggles

November 01, 2003|By Bart Hubbuch | Bart Hubbuch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Byron Leftwich has been everything the Jacksonville Jaguars expected - good and bad - when they out-dueled the Ravens for his rights in last April's NFL draft.

The Jaguars expected the big, strong-armed Leftwich to be everything he showed during a gaudy career at Marshall.

They also expected him to struggle like any other rookie once they handed him the starting job, and that's exactly what Leftwich is doing as the 1-6 Jaguars prepare to face the Ravens tomorrow.

Since taking over for the injured Mark Brunell four games ago, Leftwich has thrown nine interceptions - including three games with three interceptions each - and lost two fumbles. He also has plummeted in the AFC with a 70.3 quarterback rating while winning just one of those four starts.

"Byron is making progress, and we like a lot of things that we're seeing," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "The best thing for him now is that he's gaining experience. The more he plays, the better he's going to become."

Leftwich's promise and potential are why the Jaguars say they are willing to ride out the rough times, which have been plentiful in Del Rio's first season as an NFL head coach.

As well as committing turnovers, Leftwich continues to have passes batted down at the line - despite standing 6 feet 5 -and needs to quicken an elongated throwing motion that has made him an easy interception target for opposing defensive backs.

That was never more obvious than last Sunday, when Leftwich threw three critical interceptions that Tennessee converted into 17 points on the way to a 30-17 road victory that Del Rio called the low point in his brief career.

"You've got to understand that Byron is a rookie," Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith said. "He hasn't seen a lot of this stuff. He's got to see it, so the next time it won't happen again. He's got to go through the growing pains."

The Jaguars are confident Leftwich, who grew up in Capitol Heights, Md., can survive those growing pains because he has a strong arm and is considered to have football smarts far beyond his years.

Leftwich's intelligence was evident in training camp, when he missed the first 19 days in a contract dispute then led a game-winning touchdown drive against the Miami Dolphins just two days after reporting.

"He's the most intellectually advanced rookie quarterback I've ever seen," Del Rio said.

Leftwich also has confidence that isn't easily shaken, despite his turnovers and the Jaguars' continued losses.

"You can't be trigger-shy," said Leftwich, who has completed 59 percent of his passes for 1,105 yards and six touchdowns. "I've got to learn from the interceptions and try not to throw some of them. But at the same time, you can't be gun-shy. The second you get like that, you're not going to be at your best."

Leftwich's relentless approach is fine with the Jaguars, who say they remain confident that the second half of the season won't be as troublesome as the first half for their No. 1 draft pick.

Del Rio said he already is starting to see some gains by Leftwich, whose task has been made easier recently by the return of Smith from a drug suspension and the surprise emergence of receiver Troy Edwards.

With Smith and Edwards to throw to and dangerous running back Fred Taylor behind him, things are set for Leftwich to succeed this season.

Smith, for one, thinks that success will come sooner, not later.

"We're going to go through it with Byron because he's our guy," Smith said. "I've got all the confidence in the world in No. 7, because he's going to be a great one before it's all said and done."

Next for Ravens

Matchup:Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6) vs. Ravens (4-3)

Site:M&T Bank Stadium

When:Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line:Ravens by 7

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