Jaguars fans got a glimpse of the team's future. So, who's the quarterback of the future, David Garrard or Byron Leftwich?
That was the burning question following the Jaguars' 27-23 preseason win over the Miami Dolphins Friday night at Alltel Stadium. With Mark Brunell taking the night off, Garrard was the Jags' starting quarterback and led the team on an impressive touchdown drive in the final minute of the first half.
But the real dramatics belonged to Leftwich, the Jags' first-round draft choice, who ended a 19-day holdout by signing a contract in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Leftwich had only two days of limited preparation, but entered the game in the fourth quarter with the Jaguars trailing 23-20 and, in his second offensive series, displayed a command of the Jaguars offense that left coach Jack Del Rio in awe.
"He didn't disappoint; that's for sure. He was on top of the offense to a point that was scary. He definitely spent time in his playbook while he was holding out," Del Rio said.
Leftwich completed seven of 10 passes for 84 yards and a game-winning, 17-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Donald Hayes. Leftwich's first professional appearance resulted in a 128.8 passer rating. Most importantly, he energized those among the crowd of 49,751 who stayed to get a glimpse of the Jags' new star.
"It's a situation I'm kind of used to," Leftwich said of having to rally his offense, which was limited exclusively to third-team players. Of course, Leftwich was playing against Miami's deep reserves, too.
"I studied my playbook hard. I had nothing else to do," Leftwich said. "This is what I've been wanting."
Leftwich made several impressive throws, but the touchdown toss to Hayes had a special quality to it. "I wanted to put the ball where only he could catch it," Leftwich said. And he did, as Hayes went above the Dolphins defender and came down with the ball and one knee in bounds.
Of course, postgame questions attempted to rush Leftwich into the near future; as near as sometime this season. Reporters wanted to know when he'll be ready to become the starting quarterback.
"I'm ready at all times. When my time comes, I'll be ready," Leftwich said.
Garrard wants to believe he's the Jaguars' quarterback of the future, but Garrard knows the Jaguars didn't make Leftwich the seventh pick of last April's draft and sign him to a $29 million contract so he might sit the bench. Garrard knows the cards are stacked against him, but there was no denying the talent he showed in his performance against the Dolphins.
"I was happy with it. It's something to build on," he said.
Garrard completed 12 of 17 passes for 135 yards and a 94.0 passer rating. The feature drive of his performance began with 57 seconds to play in the first half and Miami holding a 13-3 lead.
From his 20-yard line, Garrard completed passes of nine and 15 yards to Jimmy Smith. Then he found Micah Ross for 11 yards and J.J. Stokes for 27 yards to the Miami 18-yard line. Garrard then scrambled around left end for 16 yards, bowling over a Miami defender at the two-yard line. And on the final play of the half, rookie running back Joe Smith plowed up the middle and into the end zone.
Garrard did not fare as well against the Dolphins' starting defense. He struggled against a heavy rush, but, as he had the previous week in Minnesota, Garrard always managed to elude the first rusher. His mobility is clearly the strength of his game, but it would seem the rest of his game is catching up.
"I'm still young. I've got a lot of years ahead of me. I know my time will come. As long as I'm here, I'm going to keep working hard," Garrard said when he was asked about his future in Jacksonville.
Of course, Brunell remains the starting quarterback. He is the present.
Meanwhile, Quinn Gray, who is attempting to coax the Jaguars into keeping four quarterbacks, led the offense on a 15-play, 71-yard touchdown drive that staked the Jags to a 20-16 lead with 12:59 to play in the fourth quarter.
"The best thing is the three quarterbacks who played all played with poise," Del Rio said.
It was Del Rio's Jacksonville debut and the evening culminated in the "new era" coach being doused with ice water.
"I told the team no more ice baths until it's something meaningful. I'm glad the guys are excited, but we want to keep things in perspective," Del Rio said.
Del Rio cited Joe Smith's hard running and complimented his offensive line on an "outstanding job." But Del Rio took exception to his special teams' kick coverage. "The most disturbing thing is we took a step back on special teams. I'm anxious to put the tape on and find out who and why," Del Rio said.
Rookie kicker Seth Marler booted a 30-yard field goal, but his kickoffs were rather short. James Tuthill converted a 21-yard attempt that tied the game at 13-13 in the third quarter and was better on kickoffs.
The Dolphins scored with somewhat alarming ease on two drives and rushed for a 4.5 yards-per-carry average. The Jaguars defense was not especially stout.
"We just have to play together more. We're still learning the scheme. I think we've fared quite well for it to be this early in the season," defensive tackle Marcus Stroud said.
The win left the Jaguars at 2-0 in the preseason, with a game in Tampa set for next Saturday night.