Jack Del Rio welcomes his rookie class to Jacksonville today and Del Rio and his assistant coaches are champing at the bit to see the new guys on the field this weekend at mini-camp, but fans and media will have their eyes trained on the team's three quarterbacks.
It has become this town's passion. Jacksonville loves to debate the issue of who the Jaguars' starting quarterback should be.
The principals haven't changed. They are still Byron Leftwich, David Garrard and Quinn Gray, and still in that order. That much hasn't changed, either. They were in that order at last year's mini-camp and in mini-camp the year before that, too.
Leftwich, Garrard, Gray or Leftwitch, Jerrard, Grey; spell it any way you want, but they are "The Men," each of whom wants to be "The Man."
"They believe I'm the best option at quarterback for this team to win. I felt that way all the time," Leftwich told reporters on Tuesday, in what was his first media interview since late last season, after he was replaced at quarterback by Garrard.
There is no doubt in Leftwich's mind that he is "The Man." Del Rio made that clear on Feb. 22 when, in an unexpected statement, he reinstated Leftwich as the team's starting quarterback.
Garrard is just as certain that he will be given the opportunity to compete to re-take the starting job, and is committed to do just that.
Finally, Gray wants to compete for the starting job and believes he should be afforded the opportunity.
Let's deal with the facts. Here they are:
…Leftwich's salary says he's "The Man." He'll earn $5.2 million in the final year of his contract this season. On Tuesday, Leftwich said negotiations on a new contract had yet to begin.
Injuries have been Leftwich's greatest problem. He's missed 16 games in the last two seasons; 18 in the last three. He has to prove this season that he can stay on the field. That's going to be the key to whatever success he has in persuading the Jaguars to negotiate a new contract, or attracting a team in free agency next winter.
The ankle injury Leftwich sustained in week 11 of the 2005 season was not fully repaired prior to the start of '06. Loose bodies caused pain and swelling in the ankle last October, causing Del Rio to make a switch to Garrard at quarterback. Leftwich, with the team's approval, then underwent season-ending surgery on the ankle.
At passing camp this week, Leftwich pronounced the ankle fully recovered. He said it feels better than it has in three years and he appeared to move freely and nimbly in practices this week.
The theory and hope is that a healthy ankle and continued health in general will allow Leftwich to improve his passing mechanics under new quarterbacks coach Mike Shula and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, and that Leftwich will go on to secure his starter's status, mend his relationship with Del Rio, establish himself as a player the Jaguars want to re-sign, and warm to the idea of doing a new contract with the Jaguars.
…Garrard was playing effectively as Leftwich's replacement until suffering the worst day of his football life in a week 15 loss in Tennessee that led to a three-game collapse that left the Jaguars out of the playoffs last season.
Until then, Garrard appeared to have won Del Rio's favor. Until his interceptions fest in Tennessee, Garrard appeared as though he might be "The Man" long-term.
That one game and the collapse that followed caused a January-February re-evaluation of the talent available to the Jaguars at the quarterback position, and Garrard fell back to number two, where he currently resides, again. There are those, of course, who believe Garrard is destined to be a lifelong number two. He does not.
"I'm still going to compete and try to earn a starting job," Garrard told jaguars.com on Tuesday.
Any chance Garrard has of winning the job rests with his ability to press his advantage as the more mobile and athletic quarterback. His mantra must be: When in doubt, run. That's the best way to avoid the interceptions that burst his bubble in Tennessee.
…Gray hasn't played in anything but mop-up roles, but he's never played poorly in one of them. In last season's finale, Gray replaced Garrard in the second half and lit it up. He was, of course, throwing against a prevent defense.
The former undrafted free agent has carved out a nice career as a number three, but he wants something more out of his career now. He wants to compete for a starting job.
Gray has a good arm, nice size, pocket presence and mobility. He is said to be intelligent and a quick learner. Former Jaguars offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave marveled at Gray's meticulous note-taking in quarterback meetings.
What does Gray have to do to earn a chance to compete? The answer to that question is simple: Stop throwing interceptions in practice.
To earn a chance in something more than a mop-up role, Gray needs to start lighting it up in practice as he did in Kansas City in the 2006 season finale. That didn't occur this week in the three-day passing camp. Gray got off to a rocky start. He can reverse that trend in this weekend's mini-camp.
Those are the facts; just the facts.