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Dance partners

Jaguars' Garrard has been in fine step since Del Rio made switch

Quarterback David Garrard celebrates the Jaguars' playoff victory over Pittsburgh. Quarterback David Garrard celebrates the Jaguars' playoff victory over Pittsburgh. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / January 10, 2008

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It was as if they were doing a hokey square dance. Jack Del Rio would allemande left with Byron Leftwich. He would promenade home with David Garrard. He would do-si-do with both of them. Three hands up and 'round you go.

Only the Jacksonville Jaguars two seasons ago began spinning in neutral, never quite sure who would be directing the offense. A tango was needed, not some sort of grand sashay.

There was every reason to suspect Del Rio believed that, too - after all, Leftwich had been his starting quarterback in 38 of the first 43 games he had coached - but in Week 12 of the 2005 season, the square dance began. Leftwich, who had been drafted in 2003 in the first round just three months after Del Rio had been named coach at the age of 39, went down with a broken right ankle. Enter Garrard, who had been drafted a year before Leftwich to back up Mark Brunell, though he had started just three games in three-plus seasons.

If it was seen as temporary relief, the picture got fuzzy when Garrard led the Jaguars to wins in four of the final five games, completing 61 percent of his passes (86 of 142) for 1,002 yards, 4 touchdowns, and just 1 interception.

Storming into the playoffs as a wild-card entry, the Jaguars assured themselves a date in New England.

Del Rio, meanwhile, assured himself a full-blown quarterback controversy by reinserting Leftwich into the starting lineup, and when the Jaguars were trounced, 28-3, the critics had a field day. Turn your corner upside down? Del Rio had, but he stuck with Leftwich at the start of the 2006 season, too, at least until he went down with another ankle injury, this time in the sixth game. It prompted another call to Garrard and from a 3-3 record he led the Jaguars to 8-5 and into playoff contention . . . until the collapse.

Intercepted four times against just three touchdowns, Garrard was at the helm as the Jaguars lost three straight to close out an 8-8, playoff-less season. Although the team's vaunted defense had given up an average of 27.7 points over those three games, it was Garrard who felt the brunt of the disappointment, so it wasn't a surprise a few months later when Del Rio indicated that he was again putting a halt to the square dance.

"Yeah, he's it," the coach said last February, when asked if Leftwich would be the Jaguars' quarterback for the upcoming season. "There isn't going to be any kind of open competition in training camp. Byron will go to camp No. 1 and we expect him to be the starter. As an organization, we've evaluated it from every angle and we feel that it's the best thing for us. It's just the best way to go, letting people know where they stand."

Seven months later, Del Rio let Leftwich know where he could sit: on the bench.

In a stunning move just nine days before the start of the 2007 season, the coach announced Garrard was his starting quarterback. The next day Del Rio added another layer of shock: Leftwich, just four years removed from being the seventh player taken in the draft, had been released.

Do-si-do, indeed.

Del Rio had invited turmoil and no one knew that better than Garrard.

"I'm sure they were [apprehensive]," he told reporters, when asked about his teammates' reaction following Del Rio's announcement. "Why wouldn't they be? You know, I was the backup coming off a season where I didn't finish strong. So that was the last taste the guys had in their mouths. Besides that, Byron had always been known as the starter around here and that's just how everybody always saw it.

"You never really just get rid of the starter and go with the backup unless the starter is hurt or if he's just playing awful. Byron was neither one of those. So it surprised everybody. It surprised me."

As it turns out, the surprises were only beginning, because Garrard has made everyone forget about that hokey two-year square dance.

He made the call

Why Leftwich fell out of favor with Del Rio is speculation. It's been suggested the quarterback's refusal to work in the offseason with Tom Martinez - the quarterback guru who hails from the Bay Area, as does Del Rio, and is Tom Brady's mentor - disappointed the coach. Perhaps, as some have theorized, Leftwich never showed that sense of urgency coaches demand.

Whatever Leftwich's negatives, it was Garrard's positives that Del Rio emphasized.

"I feel a real sense of conviction about this decision. I believe that David is our guy," said the coach, just days before the season took off with Garrard, 29, at the wheel.

Skeptics could have said they had heard similar sentiments from Del Rio regarding Leftwich, but Garrard wasted little time in muffling the criticism. Employing precision passing and creative footwork, he used his fullback-like size (6 feet 1 inch, 245 pounds) and halfback-like speed to lead the Jaguars to a 4-1 start. Though he left the next game - a 29-7 loss to the Colts - with an ankle injury, when Garrard returned for Game 10, it wasn't like previous seasons. There was no quarterback debate. The six-year veteran from East Carolina was the clear-cut leader.

Buoyed for the first time in his career by such confidence, Garrard led the Jaguars to wins in five of the next six games, the only loss being a heartbreaking 28-25 defeat to their nemesis, the Colts.

In all, Garrard was 9-3 as a starter during the regular season and his numbers were superb. At 102.2, he had the third-best quarterback rating in the NFL, better than Peyton Manning, behind only Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. No starting quarterback was intercepted fewer times than Garrard (three in 325 attempts) and if the Jaguars' rush to the playoffs validated Del Rio's commitment to him, the coach isn't about to stick out his chest and tell you he said so.

Opposing players, however, are a different story.

"It was nice, man. It was sweet," said the Patriots' Ellis Hobbs, who faced Garrard in the second-to-last game last season. "[Del Rio] liked what he saw.

"You just see a guy that's been blessed with talent. We saw it even when he wasn't starting. When he was filling in sometimes [for] Leftwich, it was like, 'This guy is really a playmaker.' He's blossomed over the years and progressed and he had his opportunity to have a full season under his belt this year and he's just run away with it."

No run, of course, points to Garrard's strength more than the clutch effort in last Saturday's 31-29 win over the Steelers in a wild-card game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Having squandered a 28-10 lead and now on the short end of a 29-28 score, the Jaguars took over at their 49 with the season hanging by a thread. When it got to fourth and 2 at the Pittsburgh 43, literally the thread was as thin as one play.

Make the first down or go home. It was that simple.

It was also time for a little humor, which Garrard felt was necessary from a leader.

"The crowd was really into it and the atmosphere was great," said Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew. "[So] David comes [into the huddle] and says, 'Just hold them, guys, I will run this one in.' "

Jones-Drew, who had set up the team's first touchdown and scored two of the next three, looked at his quarterback and shook his head.

"I was like, 'David, we are at the [43]. Let's be realistic.' "

Though the Jaguars were in position to win, the reality was Garrard had not played well to that point. He had completed just 9 of 21 passes for 140 yards, his rating a paltry 41.9. Two of his passes had been intercepted and turned into 10 points. But now, when the Jaguars needed him most, Garrard stood tall, nowhere reminiscent of the quarterback who had admittedly self-destructed at the end of 2006.

"When you have a guy that comes in there and jokes around at a crucial time just to lighten everyone up and let you just go out and play, that is what helps us out," said Jones-Drew, who helped block as Garrard broke a 32-yard run. It set up the winning field goal with 40 seconds left and pushed the Jaguars into Saturday night's matchup in New England.

More than anything, though, it vindicated teammates and coaches for the support they had thrown Garrard's way since that thunderbolt of an announcement delivered by Del Rio Aug. 31.

Still, Garrard knows there is always going to be skepticism.

It surfaced in some corners in the aftermath of his shaky performance against Pittsburgh and he knows the challenge will only intensify against a New England team that is undefeated.

It's a dance he insists he's ready for.

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com.

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