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Jaguars hoping this QB handoff is a big gainer

LUKE McCOWN Won job in preseason LUKE McCOWN
Won job in preseason
By Greg A. Bedard
September 11, 2011

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The Jaguars are hoping history repeats itself.

Four years after releasing starting quarterback Byron Leftwich before the season opener, the team cut ties with David Garrard - who coach Jack Del Rio repeatedly said was “our starter’’ - six days before today’s opener against the Titans.

In 2007, the Jaguars went 11-5, finishing second behind the Colts in the AFC South but qualifying for the playoffs. They beat the Steelers, then fell to the Patriots after being tied, 14-14, at halftime.

That was the last time the Jaguars posted a winning record.

There are a few other ties to the Patriots in this.

In an email to the Florida Times-Union, Jaguars general manager Gene Smith took the blame for this public relations fiasco. The timing, if anything, was sloppy considering Garrard was informed of his release after stepping off the bus from the team’s charity kickoff event - where he was introduced as the starting quarterback.

“I’ll admit the timing was poor due to the kickoff event being on the same day as the 4 p.m. league deadline,’’ Smith wrote. “Clearly, I’m not proud of how things played out on Tuesday and our players deserve better.’’

Smith then went on to use the “we’re not the only ones to do this’’ defense in regards to the Patriots.

“The Tuesday afternoon deadline throughout the season is something every team deals with each week as they set their roster going into each game,’’ he wrote. “The New England Patriots made a roster move prior to 4 p.m. on Tuesday as well, as they waived their [second-round] selection in the 2009 draft, Darius Butler.’’

Translation: See, we’re not wrong to do this - but at least we’re publicly explaining ourselves. So please buy tickets.

The other tie-in is that this move felt a lot like the Patriots’ decision to trade safety Lawyer Milloy to the Bills before the 2003 season. You know, when ESPN’s Tom Jackson infamously said the Patriots “hate their coach.’’ That went over real well with Bill Belichick.

Playing the role of Jackson this time around was former Jaguars end Hugh Douglas.

“If there was ever a head coach that needs to be punched in the face for not being truthful to his players, it’s Jack Del Rio,’’ Douglas told ESPN Radio.

Ouch.

That’s pretty rich coming from a guy who got paid $6.7 million in 2003 as the team’s big free agent acquisition and produced 3.5 sacks. He was gone the next season and out of the league in ’05.

As far as the Jaguars and this season, there’s a big difference from ’07: New starting quarterback Luke McCown is a relative unknown.

When Garrard supplanted Leftwich, he won the job on the field. And he had been groomed for the position the previous five seasons and started 18 games with a 10-8 record.

The Jaguars became McCown’s third team in four years when they traded for him in ’09. He is 1-6 as a starter.

But McCown outplayed Garrard in the preseason, and perhaps the Jaguars found another reason for jettisoning him when Garrard was not voted a captain by his teammates. That’s almost an insult for a quarterback. That Garrard was set to earn $8 million probably didn’t help him.

Still, it was a surprise to Jaguars players.

“I was shocked by the decision,’’ said tight end Marcedes Lewis. “They obviously felt it was time to go in a different direction. Luke had a great camp, everyone knows that, and now he’s the guy. There’s no drop-off. We believe in Luke and we’re going to rally around him.’’

First-round pick Blaine Gabbert is waiting in the wings, but he didn’t look close to being ready in exhibition games, completing 35 of 70 passes, with one touchdown against one interception, and getting sacked seven times.

“Our starter is our starter until he’s not our starter,’’ Del Rio said. “That’s the way it works. To do it any other way creates a circus atmosphere.

“We have not had that. We’ve had a very purposeful camp, we’ve had a very workmanlike, businesslike training camp. A decision was made in the best interest of the football team, and now we go forward.’’

You have to wonder if the Jaguars are second-guessing themselves a bit in the wake of Peyton Manning’s second neck surgery. Now it’s likely that the Texans, Jaguars, and Titans will fight for the Colts’ scraps.

Owner Wayne Weaver, who has said Del Rio needs to make the playoffs to save his job, said the goals of the team have not changed.

“We absolutely have high expectations for this team,’’ said Weaver. “Selling tickets had nothing to do with [releasing Garrard]. This is a football decision.’’

The team’s last big football decision in ’07 worked out, in part, because Garrard threw 18 touchdowns against three interceptions. The Jaguars went from 8-8 to the playoffs that year.

The Jaguars were 8-8 last season.

They better hope lightning strikes twice, or everyone will be out of a job.

PEYTON REPLACED

Collins saddled with near-impossible task

Well, we’ll finally get to find out how valuable Peyton Manning is now that he’ll miss months - and possibly the season - after having his third neck surgery in less than two years.

The Patriots had to live through it in 2008, when Tom Brady didn’t even make it out of the first quarter before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Their subsequent 11-5 record gave some people ammunition to say they have a system any quarterback can run.

That’s ridiculous.

Not only was the AFC East weak that year, but the schedule had dates with the AFC West and NFC West, divisions that also were bad. Those Patriots feasted on what FootballOutsiders.com rated the fourth-weakest schedule in the league.

Outside of a 47-7 victory over the Cardinals, who wilted in the freezing rain and snow, the Patriots lost matchups with playoff teams outside their division: Chargers (30-10), Steelers (33-10), and Colts (18-15). That’s not very Brady-like.

With Kerry Collins set to start at quarterback, the Colts are going against the 11th-most difficult schedule, which features games against the Texans (divisional favorite), Steelers, Buccaneers, Chiefs, Saints, Falcons, Patriots, and Ravens.

And this is Manning’s offense. He has taught it to new assistant coaches himself. You can point to the success of Matt Cassel in New England, or even Kurt Warner with the Rams in 1999 when Trent Green went down, but at least those players had been in the system for more than a year (three in Cassel’s case) before having to run the show.

Collins is an old pro and has been in every system imaginable. But his physical skills just don’t fit the Colts offense. He’s a classic drop-back passer with a slow release, preferring five- to seven-step drops and a vertical passing game.

Manning is a drop-back passer, but he’s not classic. It’s three or five steps and get rid of the ball in rhythm. And probably most important, his ability to throw away passes and elude the rush have long made that offensive line appear better than it is.

Unless the Colts suddenly morph into a power running team, they are in for a world of hurt without Manning. His unique ability to run that system may make him the most valuable player in the league.

HARDWARE IN STORE?

One man’s predictions for NFL award winners

With the season under way, let’s take a look at who is set up to collect some hardware at the end. Our picks for the NFL postseason awards:

Most Valuable Player - Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers. If you watched Thursday night’s opener, then this isn’t exactly a shock.

The guy is on top of his game, and he has weapons all over the place, from a star in Greg Jennings, the steady Donald Driver, and the emerging Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley.

There may not be a more unstoppable pass in the game than Rodgers’s back-shoulder throw to any of his targets.

Offensive Player of the Year - Rodgers. His ability to make plays with his feet makes him the game’s ultimate weapon. Only thing that could hold him back is a leaky left side of the line.

Defensive Player of the Year - Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots. If New England makes the kind of dramatic improvement we think it’s capable of making, the unit will get a lot of attention. Take your pick from Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, Patrick Chung, and Mayo. We’ll go with the latter. As good as he has been in the 3-4, Mayo is a better 4-3 linebacker and will be turned loose on the weak side. “Green dogs’’ will be all the rage in Boston.

Coach of the Year - Jim Schwartz, Lions. Getting Detroit to the playoffs doesn’t deserve an award, it deserves a statue. And he may get one of those, too.

Offensive Rookie of the Year - Julio Jones, WR, Falcons. This might not validate Tom Dimitroff’s decision to mortgage some of his future to move up to the sixth pick overall and take Jones - only a Super Bowl berth will do that - but he’s the clear choice in this weak crop.

Defensive Rookie of the Year - Von Miller, LB, Broncos. Twenty years ago, Denver selected a linebacker from a (now) Big 12 school and he posted double-digit sacks and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. The player? Mike Croel out of Nebraska by way of Lincoln-Sudbury.

Comeback Player of the Year - Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions. If he can stay healthy, this should be a no-brainer. But there are other worthy candidates: Broncos DE Elvis Dumervil, Jets WR Plaxico Burress, Finley, and Haynesworth, among others.

Etc.
Patriots already claim a positive indicator After the 53-man cutdown, the Patriots had five players claimed by other teams, and a total of 16 claims were put in for those players (the player is awarded to the claimant with the worst record in 2010). The Cowboys had the next most claims - three players and a total of five claims.

It’s an indication of how strong the Patriots’ 53-man roster is, which could be a good sign.

Looking back at last year, the Packers led the league with five players claimed (10 claims). The Steelers were second with three (seven claims).

Both teams went to the Super Bowl, with the Packers winning.

Taking a closer look this year, things look even better for the Patriots.

There are 13 players released by New England this season who are currently with other teams, and just one (Jonathan Crompton with the Redskins) is on a practice squad. The other 12 are on active rosters. Landon Cohen was a 14th, but he was released yesterday by the Seahawks.

The Dolphins (five active) and Rams (seven active) are second, with nine released players on other teams.

The Cowboys are second to the Patriots in released players being on other active rosters (eight).

It’s one thing for players to be claimed, it’s another for them to stick with a new team for the whole season. So we’ll have to wait and see.

It was interesting that the Jets led the league with seven submitted claims after the 53-man cutdown. It could indicate a lack of depth on their roster. But the Jets also led the league with seven claims last year, and went to their second straight AFC Championship game.

Nickel package 1. We haven’t heard a good reason why the NFL and the union failed to come to an agreement on an in-season injured reserve list. Perhaps the NFL would entertain that only if an 18-game schedule - something the owners still very much want - is part of the discussion. The game is too violent. If you’re not going to expand the 53-man roster, an in-season injured reserve list makes sense.

2. Good move by the NFL allowing players to decorate gloves and shoes to honor the Sept. 11 anniversary. The Park Avenue office can be tone-deaf and inconsistent on a lot of subjects, but at least it got an important one right.

3. There are a lot of things on my list of things I don’t care about in the NFL, and Terrelle Pryor and his suspension are right up there.

4. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made headlines last week when he told ESPN Milwaukee that the GQ photo spread by Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was “embarrassing.’’ This coming from a guy who has a commercial with a personal injury lawyer running in Wisconsin.

5. Rodgers was correct to take shots at the media and other players, including Saints quarterback Drew Brees, for making a big deal out of the lockout workouts. The Packers had none. Sure affected them. It was a dumb story line to begin with. Everyone knows offseason workouts are overrated and merely a tool for coaches to keep players under their thumbs.

Short yardage By suggesting that teams make fantasy stats available at all home games, the NFL is making an obvious push to make the stadium experience as good as the one at home. The league didn’t mandate that it be done, but the technology is available . . . We’ll know pretty quickly - like, today - whether the Bills have a chance this season. Their defense, which was 32d in the league last season and allowed 200 or more yards rushing eight times, is up against the Chiefs, who had the league’s best rushing offense last season . . . The Browns are home for their season opener for the 12th time in 13 years. They are 1-11 in season openers since ’99 (1-10 at home) . . . The second and third overall picks in 2010, defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh of the Lions and Gerald McCoy of the Buccaneers, face off today. “It’s about time the question came,’’ McCoy said. “I’m waiting on it. It’s Bucs vs. the Lions, not me vs. him. I’ll leave it at that.’’ Suh had 10 sacks and was named All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year. It took McCoy 10 games to get a sack. He finished with three, and tore a biceps, which knocked him out for the final month . . . Cornerback Patrick Peterson was thought by many to be the most NFL-ready draft pick when he went fifth overall to the Cardinals. He’ll start today after starter Greg Toler suffered a season-ending knee injury. “I’ve got to grow up fast now,’’ he said. “But it’s going to be a fun opportunity. I can’t wait to go out there and really, really showcase my talents.’’ . . . Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has gone to the postseason in each of his three seasons, but he won’t be considered elite until he improves on his 2-6 mark against the Steelers, today’s opponent. Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley said the notion of Flacco beating the Steelers to advance to the Super Bowl “isn’t going to happen in this lifetime.’’ . . . Norfolk native Matt Hasselbeck has made the transition to the Titans well enough that he’ll be allowed to change plays at the line . . . For the first time since Todd Haley was calling offensive plays during the Super Bowl run of 2008, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has relinquished play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Miller, who was previously the team’s passing game coordinator . . . The Eagles, who play the Rams today, might have added some nice pieces in the offseason, but they are going nowhere without better play from a porous offensive line. They have three new starters there. Keep an eye on the Rams, who have really improved their roster, in that game.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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