JACKSONVILLE – Thursday Night Football this week will feature two franchises that have searched for help at the game's most important position – for a very long time.
The Jaguars, of course, have sought a franchise signal caller since Mark Brunell left after the 2003 season. Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, Blaine Gabbert and Blake Bortles … none of those talented men were up to the job of replacing Brunell, who still stands as the franchise's best quarterback.
The Bengals' search has gone much longer – dating to 1993 when Cincinnati drafted David Klingler from the University of Houston as their heir apparent to Boomer Esiason, who took the Bengals to a Super Bowl following the 1988 season.
Their list is considerably longer: Klingler, Jeff Blake, Neil O'Donnell, Akili Smith, Jon Kitna, Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton.
In 2003, both the Jaguars and Bengals took a quarterback No. 1 overall. Palmer and Leftwich took the stage with great anticipation in Cincinnati and Jacksonville. Neither made the playoffs in their first season, but both took their teams to the verge in their second.
Palmer completed 61 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, leading the Bengals to an 8-8 campaign and winning four of their final six games in 2004. Leftwich completed 61 percent of his passes that season and threw 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, pushing the Jags to a 9-7 record – winning three of their final four games and barely missing a Wild Card berth.
They met for the first time that season – as the two highest-drafted quarterbacks from the 2003 NFL Draft – on a Monday Night in early October. The Bengals were a 4-0 on their way to their best season since '88. The Jaguars were off to a 2-2 start and saw Monday Night Football as a coming-out party for a team that saw its star on the rise.
Leftwich, as he always seemed to do, embraced the moment and stood tall early with a beautiful toss to tight end George Wrighster, who leaped a defender for the catch and found his way into the end zone as the Jaguars took an early lead.
Palmer and the Bengals took longer to get started – but with wide receiver Chad Johnson roaming the secondary, it wasn't long before the two finally connected. Johnson got by safety Deon Grant for a 14-yard strike from Palmer and the game went to the half with the Jags leading 13-7.
Leftwich opened the third quarter as effortlessly as he did the first, hitting Reggie Williams for 25 yards and finding Jimmy Smith for 19. Two plays later, Earnest Wilford took a short pass and powered his way through defenders to give the Jaguars a 20-7 advantage and Alltel Stadium was electrified by the young quarterback who looked as if he was going to be a prime-time player.
Palmer led his teams to a pair of field goals, cutting the lead to just seven points entering the fourth quarter.
Leftwich took the Jaguars right down the field to open the fourth quarter and widen the lead with a 53-yard field goal from Josh Scobee. Palmer answered with a touchdown pass to Chris Henry to put the game at 23-20 with just over five minutes to play.
There was tension, even anxiety, on the Jags sideline. It was clear Palmer was special and it was going to take a strong finish to knock the Bengals out after the Jaguars' next offensive series fell short.
Palmer started marching the Bengals with completions of 11, nine and 13 yards and they were at the Jaguars 45-yard line and close to a game-tying field goal attempt.
But the Jaguars' defense held. On second and 10, linebackers Daryl Smith and Akin Ayodele made the kind of game-changing play that coaches talk about, meeting at the quarterback to force a fumble and letting Leftwich finish the prime-time showdown on the field and under the bright lights of Monday Night Football.
Both Palmer and Leftwich threw two touchdown passes and thrilled the crowd with a great game. Neither turned out to be the man, however, which brings us to Thursday Night's game between the Jags and the Bengals with the last two No. 1 overall draft choices playing quarterback in prime time – Joe Burrow for Cincinnati (No. 1 overall in 2020) and Trevor Lawrence (No. 1 in 2021).
It looks like this time both teams have got their guys. We'll see.