The Jacksonville Jaguars have not drafted a quarterback since 2003, the longest stretch of any NFL team. But the team's past two big decisions at the most important position played into that, the timing of those moves impacting this franchise at that position as much as any other.
The last two times the Jaguars pulled the trigger on quarterback decisions they fired blanks, which is why the franchise is having the problems it is right now, with a losing record at 3-4, no playoff appearances since 2007 and needing a strong marketing push to sell tickets.
|Byron Leftwich, whose presence kept the Jaguars from drafting Ben Roethlisberger, now backs up the two-time Super Bowl winner. (US Presswire)|
Bad quarterback decisions.
Make good ones, and you will sustain success. See Peyton Manning. Make bad ones, and you will have big problems. See JaMarcus Russell.
The Jaguars made two bad ones that have resulted in a team that can't pass the ball consistently, and hasn't in the eight years that Jack Del Rio has been the team's coach. The Jaguars are ranked 28th in the NFL in passing yards this season and 27th in net yards passing per play.
In Del Rio's tenure with the team, the highest they've ever finished in passing is 15th, in his first season and again in 2007. In that time frame, every team has finished higher than that in at least one season.
From 2003-2009, the Jaguars were one of only six teams that didn't have a passing unit finish a season ranked in the top 10. The others are the Bills, Browns, Jets, Bears and Redskins.
"The quarterback position is obviously a premium position and one that we haven't addressed in the draft since selecting Byron Leftwich in 2003," Jaguars general manager Gene Smith said. "There are a lot of different ways to win football games, but the performance of your quarterback will ultimately dictate the level of your team's success."
The irony in that is at the press conference to introduce Del Rio, team owner Wayne Weaver said there would be no more "three yards and a cloud of dust."
Was he ever off base?
In fairness to Del Rio, who is admittedly a run-first coach, the quarterback position has been unstable, and that's being kind. It's hard to pass when you don't have the guy to do so. Del Rio has said many times that he would like to be better throwing the football, be more aggressive. But when you're held back by the guy making the decisions, that's tough to do.
The Jaguars drafted Leftwich with the seventh overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft with the idea he would be their long-term answer. Remember, that was the draft that Minnesota, scheduled to pick seventh, ran out of time trying to make a trade. Jacksonville raced to the podium with their card to take Leftwich, fearing that Baltimore was trying to move up to take him. That's how much they wanted him. If they had hit on that pick, there are no issues now. They missed -- at least for what they wanted him to become.
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That pick, according to several Jaguars sources, was made mostly by then general manger James "Shack" Harris. Leftwich was his guy, so much so that when he worked out poorly for the team, turning off some of the coaches in attendance, Harris looked the other way.
"He decided on that pick long before that workout," one team source said.
Harris gets seared for that pick in Jacksonville. But he wasn't alone. There were others who came around to Leftwich being the pick as the draft came closer.
I called Harris to discuss his time with the team, and give him a chance to defend himself, but he declined.
"There's nothing to be gained by that," he said.
Smith and Del Rio were part of the decision-making process, but Harris was the one with the juice, the final say. The talk is that most of the Jaguars scouting staff and coaches wanted the team to take Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs instead of Leftwich. Suggs is now starting for the Baltimore Ravens at outside linebacker.
Leftwich proved to be a smart quarterback who understood the passing game, but he lacked mechanics. He had a slow release and slow feet that the coaching staff hated. That led to a conflict with Del Rio, who surprisingly released him in 2007, a week before the regular season.
That missed pick was compounded by the Jaguars passing on Ben Roethlisberger the next year. The scouts loved him. He was rated a top-five talent on their board. But with Leftwich coming the year before, they couldn't take Roethlisberger, who ended up with the Steelers. Smith mentioned this story on his radio show recently.
The Jaguars instead took wide receiver Reggie Williams, who is out of the league now, with the ninth pick. The idea was to get Leftwich some help, but in doing so they passed on a quarterback who has already won two Super Bowls.
Quarterback mistake No. 1 was compounded by not taking Roethlisberger.
Quarterback mistake No. 2 came in 2008. After David Garrard, who took over for Leftwich, led the Jaguars to a playoff victory and had a surprising season where he threw 18 touchdown passes and three interceptions, the Jaguars gave him a contract extension worth $60 million.
They did so even though he had another year left on his contract. Why rush after one season? The thinking inside the building was that tickets weren't selling like they did in the early years and that signing the coach (Del Rio) and the quarterback to long-term deals would help energize the fan base.
In the two-plus seasons since his 2007 "horseshoe" campaign, Garrard has thrown 39 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions. He averaged 7.7 yards-per attempt in 2007 and has followed that with seasons of 6.8, 7.0 and 6.5. Garrard is 15-23 as a starter since signing the new contract.
By giving him the deal, the Jaguars took themselves out of the quarterback market in terms of first-round, premium-choice possibilities for the next couple of years. If no deal were given to Garrard, the Jaguars would have been in position to take Baltimore's Joe Flacco in 2008.
Instead, they traded up with the Ravens to draft defensive end Derrick Harvey, who has been a bust and was benched this week. Flacco has emerged as a quality starter.
In 2009, they could have drafted Josh Freeman, who now starts in Tampa Bay, or traded up to get Mark Sanchez like the Jets did. They instead picked tackle Eugene Monroe with the eighth overall pick. He's a good player, but the value isn't as great as a quarterback.
"There's no doubt they've been hurt by their quarterback decisions," one NFC personnel director said. "They missed on Leftwich and they never should have paid Garrard. Those two decisions, whoever made them, weren't good ones."
And now they're paying for it. There's a chance Del Rio could lose his job during the season, especially if there is another blowout coming. Garrard, who has a cap figure close to $11 million, will almost certainly be gone next season unless he takes a pay cut.
"First, it is imperative that we accurately evaluate all of our quarterbacks through this season and then determine how we can best strengthen our future roster," Smith said.
The Jaguars' scouting brass is spending quality time on quarterbacks in preparation for next year's draft. There is little doubt that the streak of not drafting one will end, but what round and who remains to be seen.
You want to know why this franchise needed a strong push to sell tickets and might have more blackouts coming this season? One need only look under center and you will see the answer.
No more three yards and a cloud dust? Yeah, right.
Good quarterbacks cure ills and bad ones expose them. In Jacksonville, they're getting more exposure than Brett Favre and his cell phone, which makes one wonder: What if the Jaguars were the team that had Ben Roethlisberger?