He was one play away from a memory he would forever cherish; first start, first win, so sweet. But it was all lost in one careless moment.
Byron Leftwich would've returned to Jacksonville a hero tonight, but his fumble with 2:50 to play and the Jaguars clinging to a three-point lead was the team's undoing in a 24-20 defeat that is the second final-seconds defeat of this young season.
On a second-and-seven play at the Jaguars' 28-yard line, a rather aggressive call came into the huddle from offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. It would've been an aggressive call had Mark Brunell been the quarterback, but this was a rookie quarterback in his first-ever start. Given those circumstances, it was an alarming call, though coach Jack Del Rio gave it his full approval.
"I was behind the call 100 percent. It was a throw if he's wide open, or run it," Del Rio said.
So, when the wide open part didn't present itself, Leftwich took off for what he hoped would be a first down that would drive another nail into the Houston Texans' coffin. Leftwich darted upfield, had the first down and was looking for a place to land when he made the mistake of letting the ball get away from his body. Eric Brown stripped it out of Leftwich's right hand, Matt Stevens recovered it at the Jaguars' 41, and with 2:42 to play the Jaguars began to relive the nightmare that has been the first month of their season.
Ten plays later, Texans quarterback David Carr leaped over the line, stretched the ball out across the goal line and scored the game-winning touchdown with no time remaining on the Reliant Stadium clock. All of a sudden, the day Leftwich would forever cherish became the day he would love to forget.
"I just made that mistake at the end," Leftwich said of his debut as an NFL starting quarterback. Had it not been for "that mistake," he would've been one of the few quarterbacks who've claimed victory in their first start. Brunell is not one of them.
Had Leftwich come away a winner, he would not have pointed to his final stats and claimed star status. Truth be known, his stats were awful. But winning is always cheered, and his stats will only improve with time.
What's unfortunate about this loss is that a win would've allowed Leftwich and the Jaguars to claim their first wins simultaneously, which would've cemented the inseparability of the two: Leftwich is the Jaguars, and the Jaguars are Leftwich. He is their quarterback of the future, and probably the present, too. We knew as much on draft day, when the Jaguars made Leftwich the seventh player chosen. A win in Houston would've only served to underscore and celebrate that fact.
"Once I made the first guy miss, I peeked at the first-down marker," Leftwich said of the fateful dash. "I just wanted to fall down. I've just got to secure the ball better."
Del Rio forgave his quarterback's effort, though it was careless. But Del Rio wasn't about to celebrate the high moments in Leftwich's performance, no more than Del Rio was willing to praise Brunell's truly outstanding performance in a losing cause in Carolina in the season opener.
"The biggest thing quarterbacks are judged on is wins and losses. He showed enough to explain why he got drafted where he did. He did some good things but it wasn't enough," Del Rio said.
Fred Taylor was more complimentary. "He showed some good signs. He'll be one of those players you'll be readin' about when you're old and chillin' on the beach," Taylor said to a senior reporter.
And Taylor also praised the call. "I thought that was a great call because they expected a run," Taylor said.
"We did a lot of good things, but it's tough to look at the good things right after a loss," Leftwich said.
If it just wasn't for that one play. You know what they say about hindsight, but is there any chance the Jaguars should've been less aggressive?