He spent his rookie season at the heart of a major controversy, but Byron Leftwich never flinched.
If the Jaguars learned anything about the quarterback of their future, they learned he's a very resilient young man. Fan dissent never sacked him. Interceptions never deterred him. And as a result, he is Jaguars Inside Report's Jaguars rookie of the year.
Well, why not? After all, he was the seventh pick of the draft.
But this wasn't just any rookie class. This group of Jaguars rookies would appear to be special. The first three picks are all starters and the next two selections quickly developed into major contributors. It could possibly become the league's best draft class of 2003, which produced a somewhat ordinary class of rookies league-wide.
Leftwich out-pointed second-round pick Rashean Mathis and third-rounder Vince Manuwai, primarily due to the high-profile nature of the position Leftwich plays. He's the quarterback; the Jaguars' starting quarterback, a role he assumed for the fourth game of the season and maintained to the end.
"It's been a fun season for me. It's everything I've ever dreamed of," Leftwich said.
At times, however, it may have seemed more like a nightmare. From the moment he was drafted, there was dissent among Mark Brunell fans who believed Brunell was being pushed out of town unnecessarily. That dissent spilled out in criticism of Leftwich.
He could've spoken out in retaliation. He could've reacted angrily to fans who were unwilling to forgive Leftwich's mistakes as the "sins" of a rookie quarterback. But Leftwich never lost his cool.
"You have to understand that he is the only quarterback the franchise has ever known. It wasn't our decision. We've been great friends from day one. You have to understand there are going to be people who want him to play and people who want me to play," Leftwich said.
It all happened so quickly. He missed nearly all of training camp in an unpopular contract holdout. But he quickly surged past David Garrard and into the backup quarterback spot by opening day, and just four weeks later the Jaguars stepped boldly into the Leftwich era of the team's history.
If he is resilient, he is also bold. He let it be known he wanted to play.
"I hoped I would, but you don't know that's going to be a reality. I'm so happy to get these starts because they'll make me a better player for the future," he says now, looking back on what 13 starts in his rookie season have meant to his development.
At midseason, he was fumbling the ball and fans were up in arms. A loss in Baltimore was directly attributable to Leftwich having the ball stripped from his grasp, and his mechanics came sharply into focus.
Leftwich certainly had his bad games; multiple turnover games against the Texans, Dolphins, Ravens, Titans and Patriots. But he always rebounded. He followed the disaster of his debut as a starter with a star-like performance in leading the Jaguars to their first win of the season, over the Chargers. He rebounded from Baltimore by upsetting Peyton Manning and the Colts. After producing only one touchdown in losses to the Titans and Jets, Leftwich beat the Bucs.
"He improved throughout the year. It'll be good for him to have an entire training camp. I'm very impressed with what he's accomplished. He's really battled through a lot of scenarios," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said.
What it all means is that Leftwich showed enough of his skills this season to justify coach Jack Del Rio's faith in him. Leftwich clearly is "The Man."
"Every time I get a chance to play, I get better. When you're just getting in the league, any time you get a chance to play you get a whole lot better," he said. "I want to be the best at it. You do this to try to be the best. Every day I try to do the little things to get better. I really want to be the best to ever do this."
Leftwich arrived daily at Alltel Stadium at six a.m. He's a tapeaholic whose life revolves around football. His personality exudes energy for the game, and he backs down from no challenges.
"They should (expect to make playoffs)," he said of fans' expectations for 2004. "We, as players, are going to have those expectations. We expect to be successful around here. We're not going to say in 3-4 years.
"I'm just honest with myself and pretty much honest with you guys. The things I say I really feel. If I didn't believe we could be a playoff team, I wouldn't say that. As far as saying I want to be the best, that's just me," he added.
Of course, if he delivers on those expectations next season, it will be long forgotten that Leftwich drove Brunell out of town, or that he may have cost the team some losses in his rookie season.
"The toughest thing to deal with this year has been our record, and me knowing I had some part in it, and knowing I may have done some things to hurt us. The best thing about this season is being able to still have fun doing this. Coach Del Rio did a great job making it fun," Leftwich said.
And Leftwich did a great job of giving the Jaguars hope for their future.
Previous rookies of the year are: Akin Ayodele, 2002; Maurice Williams, 2001; Brad Meester, 2000; Fernando Bryant, 1999; Fred Taylor, 1998; Renaldo Wynn, 1997; Kevin Hardy, 1996; Tony Boselli and Brian DeMarco, 1995.