By Vic Ketchman, jaguars.com senior editor
Jack Del Rio didn’t wimp out. He stood in front of one of the largest local media gatherings in Jaguars history and he spoke boldly and confidently of his startling decision to end Byron Leftwich’s days as the team’s quarterback.
It was not a warm and fuzzy press conference. If there were hugs, David Garrard got them.
“He’s proven to be a playmaker for us … a threat throwing it and running with it and I think he’s earned the opportunity,” Del Rio said of Garrard’s ascent to the number one quarterback position. “He’s a player with a quick release. He’s been totally unselfish. He’s continued to work at his trade and not get discouraged when I’ve gone back to Byron. I feel a real sense of conviction about this decision,” Del Rio added.
Del Rio had reinstated Leftwich as the team’s starting quarterback on Feb. 22, a move that surprised most for how soon after last season it occurred. Friday afternoon, Del Rio announced Leftwich will either be traded by Saturday’s six p.m. roster-cut deadline or he will be released, and the announcement was even more surprising for how soon before the start of the next season it occurred.
At some point between the two announcements, Del Rio changed his mind on Leftwich. Most likely, his hard move toward Garrard occurred in the last three weeks, as Garrard continued a red-hot practice and preseason surge, while Leftwich slumped. When Leftwich bottomed out in Green Bay in game three of the preseason a week ago, the deal was done.
“Not the last straw but certainly it was verification of what I was feeling,” Del Rio said of the Green Bay game. “I’ve been contemplating this decision for some time. It was such a strong conviction in my heart that I had to make that change.”
So here’s where it all stands:
• Garrard is number one. It’s his job to hold and he’d likely be cheered lustily, should the offensive starting lineup be introduced at the season-opener.
• Quinn Gray is number two. “We’ve liked Quinn for some time,” Del Rio said. On Saturday, Gray will bury his father one day after taking one step closer to the dream his father always had for him.
• Somewhere out there is the Jaguars’ number three quarterback. He could be a veteran or a young guy the team would assign to the practice squad. “We’ll definitely have a third quarterback here,” Del Rio said.
• Leftwich is in limbo. He awaits a new team to surface. His $5 million salary for the 2007 season has almost certainly been lost. He is now at a crossroads in his career.
“Byron was given every opportunity to lead this football team. In Feb. I named him the returning starter because we felt he gave us the best chance to win football games. It became apparent David gave us the best chance,” Del Rio said.
Del Rio spoke alone to reporters. He wanted it that way. He wanted to accept responsibility for the decision.
“If you have the conviction and the belief, you make the change. We have a strong roster. We have a good football team,” Del Rio said.
Garrard replaced Leftwich in game seven of last season and had the Jaguars at 8-5 and on the verge of a playoff berth when he experienced a turnover meltdown in Tennessee that resulted in the first of three consecutive defeats that left the team at 8-8 and out of the playoffs. The big question now is: Can Garrard overcome his penchant for dangerous passes?
“I do believe (offensive coordinator) Dirk (Koetter) and (quarterbacks coach) Mike (Shula) have done a nice job with our group. With coaching, David will grow as a quarterback,” Del Rio said. “David has what we’re looking for and he’s ready to take his game to a whole new level.”
Del Rio broke the news to Leftwich at about 3:15 on Friday afternoon. The coach did not provide details of Leftwich’s reaction.
The team was informed of the decision shortly after Leftwich got the news and Del Rio said: “Our team has really shown signs of embracing my message. They have thrown their full support behind David because he’s our guy. The team is going to embrace the message I give them and the direction I provide.”
Del Rio said it was not his decision alone. “I would not make a decision like this without involving all of the people around here,” he said.
“We selected him for a reason and we gave him four seasons and a fifth offseason,” Del Rio said of Leftwich. “We’ve seen enough.”