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Leftwich not bothered


The kid was on the hot seat. It could've been a long night, or maybe even a short night, against one of the most proud defenses in NFL history. Byron Leftwich was facing the most stern challenge of his young career.

Because he responded with the most efficient and error-free performance of his rookie season, Leftwich is back on solid ground as the Jaguars' starting quarterback. Jack Del Rio won't spend any time this week considering whether to bench Leftwich. That won't happen because Leftwich was the star of the Jaguars' 17-10 win over the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Bucs.

You might say all's well that ends well, but last week started very badly for Leftwich and there were those who thought it might end in disaster.

On Monday of last week, Leftwich was on the verge of losing his job. About 36 hours later, Del Rio announced he would stay with Leftwich, however, it was clear Del Rio was nearing the limit of his patience.

"Byron went a long way toward showing the coach made a pretty good decision," Del Rio said in patting himself on the back for not having benched Leftwich. Del Rio was justified in applauding himself because Leftwich isn't just another young player on the Jaguars' roster; he's the first draft pick of the Del Rio era, a $12 million quarterback who's the foundation of this franchise's future.

On this, the franchise's 10th anniversary celebration, it would've been the worst of omens had Leftwich played so poorly that Del Rio would've had to bench him. On this anniversary night, Leftwich proved to the Jaguars' largest television audience of the season that the team made the right pick last April and that the franchise's future is, indeed, in good hands.

"He responded like a pro," Del Rio said of Leftwich's reaction to the coach's announcement at the start of the week that he was considering making a change at quarterback. "There's no question missing (training) camp put him behind. There's also no doubt he's going to be a fine football player in this league. I did what I thought was best for him and the organization," Del Rio added.

Del Rio was admitting his remarks were measured. He said what he did to make sure Leftwich understood he needed to play better. Del Rio was giving his rookie quarterback a push, and Del Rio was anxious to see how Leftwich would respond.

He responded by completing 20 of 34 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 98.2 passer rating. For the second time in his nine-starts career, Leftwich was not responsible for a turnover. The crowning jewel of his performance was his 48-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Smith. It was the game-winner.

"I never lost confidence in myself. My teammates still had confidence in me," Leftwich said. "I challenge myself every week. I would love to have played better. I didn't need that to challenge me to play better," he added of his coach's earlier remarks.

"If you allow added pressure on yourself, that's when you get into trouble," Leftwich said.

Maybe it will be to Leftwich's advantage that he is not being permitted the luxury of being a rookie. Maybe the pressure Leftwich has faced will harden him more quickly than should be expected of a young quarterback.

Patience? Certainly not among the Jaguars' fan base. The kid has been hammered in the court of public opinion. You'd think he was a 10-year veteran who had inexplicably slipped into some kind of a slump.

Instead, he's a baby-faced 23-year-old who stepped out of the Mid-American Conference and into the NFL. Last fall, Leftwich was playing against the likes of Akron and Toledo. This fall, he has beaten the likes of the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Bucs.

So, what is it about this kid that has caused Jaguars fans to be so intolerable of his learning process? Why has he not been afforded the support that should accompany a player who is so critical to the Jaguars' future and long-term success?

They are interesting questions, but they require no answers this week. Criticism will abate because the kid lit it up. Who would dare jump the kid this week?

"It builds confidence," Jimmy Smith said of Leftwich's performance. "(Tampa) is one of the league's best defenses. For him to pick this defense apart the way he did says a lot for him as a quarterback."

What does it say? That he can handle the pressure of being called out, so to speak, by his head coach.

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