Jacksonville Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio recalls the first time he sent quarterback Byron Leftwich into a preseason game last year as a rookie. The first-round draft choice from Marshall just had ended a 19-day contract dispute, signed his first NFL deal and reported to the team a couple of days before, and Del Rio was giving him some last-second advice.
"He said, 'Coach, this is why you brought me here. Don't worry. I've got it,' " Del Rio said. "He's got a real calmness about him, a real collected, sure-of-himself [demeanor] . . . just a poise that I think is good for the guys. I think they feed off it."
In the early stages of his first full season as an NFL starter, Leftwich's nerves have been tested in the Jaguars' three stomach-churning games. Still, they are 3-0 and in position to be the surprise team.
"We make the plays we've got to make to win football games," Leftwich, a District native who attended H.D. Woodson High, said after Jacksonville's 15-12 victory Sunday at Tennessee. The win was secured on tailback Fred Taylor's one-yard touchdown run with nine seconds left.
The Jaguars are mixing clutch play (Leftwich threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Ernest Wilford (Virginia Tech) as time expired for a 13-10, season-opening victory at Buffalo) with good fortune (Denver tailback Quentin Griffin lost a fumble as the Broncos were setting up a would-be winning field goal in a 7-6 Week 2 loss at Jacksonville). The Jaguars have scored only 35 points this season, one fewer than the 0-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Jacksonville has allowed only 28 points, the second-fewest in the league among the teams that have played three games.
Last season, when the club went 5-11 with Del Rio as a rookie head coach, the Jaguars lost three games in the final minute and lost six games by seven points or less. Still, Del Rio managed to build late-season momentum with a 4-4 second-half record that followed a 1-7 first half, and the Jaguars officially turned their team over to Leftwich by trading veteran quarterback Mark Brunell to the Washington Redskins in the offseason.
The Jaguars haven't had a winning season since 1999, when they reached the AFC title game for the second time under former coach Tom Coughlin, and Del Rio isn't getting carried away. He was the defensive coordinator for a Carolina Panthers team that started 3-0 in 2002, then lost eight straight and finished 7-9.
"This is a young football team that's had some early success, but we still have a lot of work to do," Del Rio said during his Monday news briefing. "That's going to be my message."
Still, Del Rio had called the triumph in Tennessee a "huge, huge win" immediately after the game, and the Jaguars clearly believe they are on their way to being one of the league's top teams. Leftwich is making clutch plays but hasn't yet played particularly well before crunch time. He is the AFC's 11th-rated passer this week, and said Sunday he is waiting for the "breakout performance" in which he throws for "about 450 yards [and] four touchdowns."
He squared off with one reigning NFL co-most valuable player last weekend in Titans quarterback Steve McNair. The other, quarterback Peyton Manning, goes to Jacksonville this weekend as the Indianapolis Colts face the Jaguars on Sunday.
"It's exciting to play against those guys," Leftwich told reporters after the Tennessee game. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't. I knew the MVP was sitting over there. I know the other one is coming to our house next week."
A Very Special 'Joey' Episode
Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington was not pleased about comments made about him by Fox sideline reporter Tony Siragusa during the telecast of the Lions' 30-13 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday. Siragusa said of Harrington: "He's different than what I expected. . . . I can't see him going out and ordering a beer anytime soon. He's the kind of guy who's on the other side of the club than I am. He's over there with the champagne and caviar and also the strawberries and chocolate."
Harrington responded Monday in the Lions' locker room: "Am I supposed to care what he says? I'm not his kind of guy -- why? Because I was cordial in the production meeting? Because I tried to be articulate? Because I smile when I play? . . . I was raised to be polite, to look someone in the eye when they ask you a question, and I answer it. If he came to the parking lot and saw whose car is the last one out of here every day, he wouldn't make those comments." . . .
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb completed passes to eight receivers Sunday, including a one-yard touchdown pass to reserve tight end Mike Bartrum. The Eagles' long snapper, Bartrum celebrated with a deep snap from the end zone right back to McNabb and was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. "We practiced it even though we knew Andy [Reid, Eagles' coach] would get upset," McNabb said.
They were right. Said Reid, "I didn't like it."
A Diaper Dandy for Dolphins?
The Dolphins lost Ricky Williams's replacement at tailback -- Lamar Gordon, obtained in a trade with St. Louis -- to season-ending shoulder surgery. That could lead them to consider trading for Kansas City Chiefs tailback Larry Johnson, the disgruntled former first-round draft choice who was upset when Coach Dick Vermeil said last week that Johnson would have to "take the diaper off" to play. The Chiefs also are shopping Johnson to Dallas, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. . . .
The Chicago Bears agreed Monday to a two-year, $900,000 contract with quarterback Chad Hutchinson, who was released by the Cowboys before training camp. Hutchinson could be an option later in the season for Coach Lovie Smith, who now turns to Jonathan Quinn as his quarterback with Rex Grossman sidelined for the remainder of the season because of a torn right anterior cruciate ligament.
Volek May Start for Titans
The Atlanta Falcons and other teams made a serious run at prying backup quarterback Billy Volek from the Titans via free agency in the offseason. But the Titans, even with their tight salary cap situation, made keeping Volek a priority and re-signed him to a four-year contract worth $6.8 million. Now they could be leaning on Volek to start Sunday at San Diego after McNair bruised his sternum late in the loss to the Jaguars. McNair spent two nights in a hospital before being released yesterday. . . . Titans safety Lance Schulters could be sidelined for the rest of the season because of torn ligaments in his foot. . . .
Watch out, Drew Brees. Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer elevated rookie quarterback Philip Rivers to second on the depth chart Monday, ahead of Doug Flutie. . . . New York Jets center Kevin Mawae will try to play this week with a broken right hand. He has made 157 straight starts, the third-longest active streak in the league behind Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre (192) and Chiefs guard Will Shields (178). The Jets are coming off a bye week.