The Jaguars' offseason has begun and its feature attraction is a quarterback controversy that was heightened on Sunday by the emergence of, yet, another candidate for the starting job.
Please welcome Quinn Gray to the mix at sports' most important and debated position. A season that ended with the disappointment of not having qualified for the playoffs, produced its second change at quarterback this season, in the second half of Sunday's 35-30 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I thought Quinn Gray gave us a chance to win. I wanted to give our team a spark. Right there at the end, we just need to get the ball back," head coach Jack Del Rio told reporters following the loss at Arrowhead Stadium.
As it turned out, the game had no playoffs relevance for the Jaguars. They wouldn't have made it into the playoffs even with a win. It was a game, however, that carries a lot of offseason relevance. It would seem to underscore the team's top offseason priority: The Jaguars have to decide what they're going to do in their search for a starting quarterback.
The season began with Byron Leftwich entrenched at the position. He was replaced, however, by David Garrard in the seventh game of the season, and Garrard held the job through the first half of Sunday's game.
When Garrard threw an interception that allowed the Chiefs a 28-10 lead with 12:08 to play in the third quarter, however, Del Rio benched Garrard and gave the ball to Gray, whose only other playing time was in last year's regular-season finale.
Gray immediately responded by leading the Jaguars to touchdown drives of 59 and 69 yards. He capped both drives by scrambling for the scores.
All of a sudden, the Jaguars had another name to drive the talk shows. Yeah, the Chiefs were playing prevent-type coverages as they attempted to protect the lead, but that fact is not likely to dampen fans' enthusiasm for Gray's performance.
When rookie running back Maurice Jones-Drew capped a 51-yard touchdown drive with a five-yard touchdown run that cut the Chiefs' lead to five points with five minutes left to play, Gray had become a "star." Unfortunately, the Jaguars were not able to stop the Chiefs from running out the clock.
What if Gray had gotten one more chance? What if he had rallied the Jaguars to a win? Those are the kinds of what-if questions that'll likely whip fans into a quarterback frenzy for at least the next month or two.
"We have stated for some time that we think Quinn can play. He hasn't been given that opportunity. I know he gives Mike Smith and the defense fits all week as the scout team quarterback," Del Rio said.
"The future and evaluations are all things that are going to take place. We'll spend the next few weeks, even months, going through that," he added.
Though the Jaguars finished the 2007 with a disappointing 8-8 record, the prevailing opinion is that the team is built to make a championship run in the near future. It will not make that run, however, until it identifies a long-term fixture at the quarterback position. Gray's emergence against the Chiefs would only seem to further destabilize the situation.
"I'm not really concerned whether I'm opening or closing issues. I was looking to give our team a spark. He gave us a spark," Del Rio said. "I would like someone to step up and be the dominant player at that position. It just hasn't happened yet."
Del Rio will address reporters in a press conference on Tuesday that traditionally provides review and analysis, with a look ahead to what the team's thoughts might be for the offseason. Del Rio promised on Sunday that he would provide that kind of commentary on Tuesday.
"I'm not going to make it 20 minutes after the game," he said of a decision on who the team's starter is for next season. "I think it's good to have a guy who can move. It's good. It doesn't mean you have to. Dan Marino didn't move much," Del Rio said.
"We're looking to win a championship. We'll have to go beyond being more than moderately successful," he added.
Gray completed 13 of 22 passes for 166 yards and an 82.8 passer rating. He had two apparent interceptions dropped by Chiefs defensive backs.
After a slow start, Garrard rebounded with a strong performance in the second quarter. He had thrown for 140 yards, one touchdown and a 105.0 passer rating in the first half, but his day was ended by cornerback Ty Law's interception on the Jaguars' second play of the second half.
Law sniffed out a quick, sideways pass for Reggie Williams, stepping in front of Williams, picking off the pass and returning it to the Jaguars two-yard line. Larry Johnson scored the second of his three touchdowns on the next play.
"Catch and throw; there's no reading involved," Garrard said of the pass play, which has been a staple of the Jaguars this season. Apparently, they used it once too often. "That was good film study by him."
Garrard was asked if he's OK with Del Rio's decision to insert Gray.
"I'm going to have to be. He said he wanted to get Quinn a shot," Garrard said.
"Pretty disappointing," he added of the season. "That was my main focus all year long, to get this team into the playoffs."
The Jaguars' playoff hopes required help from the Raiders, Steelers and Patriots. The Steelers and Patriots did their parts, but the Raiders didn't; neither did the Jaguars.
So the Jaguars won't have a playoff berth to warm them this January, but they'll no doubt feel the heat of their quarterback controversy.
"I believe I can," Gray said when asked if he thought he could win the starting job. "When opportunity comes for that, I'll be ready to compete for it."