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Leftwich must break habit


It's his year of learning; his painful year of development into an NFL quarterback of the future. Five games into that year, Byron Leftwich may have to take a step back to one of the basics of the game: Protect the football.

On a day that pitted Leftwich against the league's only other starting rookie quarterback, Leftwich scored a narrow statistical victory -- if not a major style advantage -- but Baltimore's Kyle Boller came away the winner because Leftwich didn't minimize his turnovers and Boller did.

They are expected of a rookie quarterback. Boller, who is asked to do far less in the Ravens' offense than Leftwich is asked to do in the Jaguars', threw an interception, his eighth of the year. Leftwich also threw one, at crunch time, but he also fumbled three times and lost two.

His interceptions have reached nine in five starts, but his six lost fumbles are far more alarming because they are the result of some possible flaws in Leftwich's mechanics that must be corrected.

"He's holding the ball too low?" coach Jack Del Rio asked in repeating a reporter's question. "Then we'll have to look at it."

Leftwich was stripped of the football three times in the Jaguars' 24-17 loss today. He lost two of those fumbles in consecutive possessions early in the fourth quarter, and they resulted in the Ravens' final 11 points of the game; the game-winning points.

Meanwhile, Boller fumbled once and had it returned 15 yards for a touchdown by Jaguars linebacker Akin Ayodele. So, you might say that in the turnover department, Leftwich outscored Boller 10-7.

It's what rookie quarterbacks do. They turn the ball over. John Elway did it as a rookie. So did Peyton Manning, who threw 28 interceptions in his rookie season. They all did it, with the exception, of course, of Dan Marino.

But it's not that simple with Leftwich because his fumbles are not just matter of fact. They are the result of a major no-no; something he must absolutely stop doing or his rookie season will go on forever. Quarterbacks must not carry the ball low or away from their body while standing in the pocket. The ball must be high and tight to their ear or the long-armed pass-rush types such as Peter Boulware and Jevon Kearse, each of whom measured Leftwich on consecutive Sundays, will strip the ball from his grasp.

"That's something we'll have to look at and if I'm holding it too low we'll have to fix it," Leftwich said.

Expect it to be fixed soon. Just ahead is a visit to Alltel Stadium by Dwight Freeney, one of those sack-you, strip-you types who will, no doubt, notice Leftwich offers the ball to those who might reach it. In the Mid-American Conference, there weren't many who could, but this isn't the MAC.

Yeah, as stated above, this is part of the learning process. It's about eliminating turnovers. When Leftwich succeeds at that endeavor, his career will go forward by leaps and bounds. He will blossom as a pure pocket-passer. But that day is in the distance; in the considerable distance for Leftwich and probably even beyond that for Boller who, quite frankly, doesn't appear to have Leftwich's instincts, skills or flair for the position. The Ravens admitted as much on draft day last April, when they desperately attempted to jockey into position to draft Leftwich ahead of the Jaguars.

"It's a process you have to go through. You look at all of the great quarterbacks and they've gone through this," wide receiver Jimmy Smith said of Leftwich and his rookie pangs. "He has to be in these situations. You have to take your team down the field with a couple of minutes left on the clock, and he did that."

And he almost did it twice, but his second attempt ended with 44 seconds to play in the game and linebacker Ray Lewis clinging to an interception that clinched victory for the Ravens. It was another one of those mistakes Leftwich must stop making. It was the classic rookie mistake.

Leftwich attempted to force a pass into a crowd, and we all know how that ends, but that's not nearly as worrisome as those fumbles are. Rookies eventually learn not to throw into crowds, but holding the ball low can become a habit difficult to break. Now's the time to do it.

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