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NFL's new gunslinger


We are witnessing the development of an NFL star quarterback, and the evidence of that doesn't get any more dramatic than it did Sunday in the RCA Dome.

Byron Leftwich, the second-year quarterback who, a year ago, was the very unpopular replacement for the most beloved player in Jaguars history, scored a shootout win against no less a gunslinger than Peyton Manning. A week earlier, Leftwich had gunned down Trent Green, and before him it was Steve McNair.

Manning, Green and McNair: Going into the season, they were three of the AFC's four hottest quarterbacks. What does that make Leftwich?

Sunday, Leftwich was Mr. Everything, again. He moved the ball up and down the field; completed 23 of 30 passes for 300 yards, again, two touchdowns and a 116.0 passer rating. His passer rating would've been even higher had it not been for an interception that appeared to bounce off the turf.

But more importantly, again, Leftwich did his best work at crunch time. When the Jaguars needed it, he provided it, and now four of the Jaguars' five wins this season have been the result of Leftwich producing the game-winning score with less than a minute to play in the game.

There are no more doubters. There are only admirers. Anyone else, well, you know, there's something wrong with them.

"He's making good decisions. He's spreading the ball around. This is a guy who is super intelligent. He doesn't paint by the numbers. He could easily say I've got it figured out now, but he continues to work hard," Leftwich's coach, Jack Del Rio, said following his team's 27-24 win.

It was a game in which Leftwich's first 10 passes were all complete. That meant he had thrown 15 consecutive pass completions, including five left over from the win over Kansas City, and that meant Leftwich had set a Jaguars record for such efficiency.

He finished the first half 10 of 11. He was on fire and he continued that mode right through the heart-stopping finish.

Leftwich was a thing of beauty; maybe even as stylish as Manning, if that's possible. On second thought, yeah, it is possible because Leftwich's 65-yard bomb to Jimmy Smith in the third quarter was the game's most breath-taking play; an act of athletic majesty. He stepped up in the pocket, saw Smith breaking free down the left sideline, then heaved a perfectly-arched strike to Smith in the face of an on-rushing Colt.

But Leftwich found himself having to summon his grit, again, because his short-yardage offense failed him, again. Oh, if it hadn't been for all of those third-and-one and fourth-and-one failures, again, the Jaguars would've won going away. The kid may have put up 40 points. He may have hit 500 yards.

A week ago it was said he had stepped into the ranks of the game's elite quarterbacks. There were some snickers. Are there any today? Hey, folks, he out-dueled Manning in a shootout. What does that say? It says it all, doesn't it?

"I knew I was going to have Jimmy (Smith) or Ernest (Wilford)," Leftwich said of the 25-yard touchdown strike he pitched to Smith, which gave the Jaguars a 22-17 lead at the time. "I wanted Ernest in the seam but the safety did a good job," Leftwich explained.

The kid sees the field, doesn't he? Imagine that; in just his second year.

"I started getting to my third (read) right at the end of last season," he added. "I know where my guys are going to be at."

Armed with that knowledge, that intelligence, as Del Rio called it, Leftwich was able to consider the ultimate in his pursuit of becoming an NFL star. He was able to consider engaging Manning, the game's ultimate gunslinger, in a shootout.

"All week I was wondering, can we do it?" Leftwich said of winning a shootout-type game. "It's not about me against Peyton. It's about the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Indianapolis Colts."

Yesterday, it was about Leftwich, again. His play has quickly elevated to the point that this team can begin considering what was previously only a wild dream.

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