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Jags hand the ball to Leftwich
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Old 26 Sep 2003, 08:57 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Jags hand the ball to Leftwich

Even if Mark Brunell's injured elbow improves dramatically before Sunday, Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich still will make his first regular-season start against the Houston Texans, league sources told ESPN.com.

"Everybody knows what's going on here," one source said. "This is [Leftwich's] game."

Brunell did not practice Thursday for the second straight day, further strengthening the public perceptions that Leftwich -- the franchise's first-round choice and seventh overall player chosen in the 2003 draft -- would get the nod.

But even before Thursday, sources contended, the decision to start Leftwich had been made.

First-year coach Jack Del Rio continues to be coy publicly on the matter. Several sources said Leftwich was informed earlier this week that he will start.

Brunell recently was told by some members of the Jags coaching staff that owner Wayne Weaver, concerned about his team's poor start and the potential for losing fan interest, was eager to see Leftwich in the lineup.

Leftwich told some confidants that he's been holed up this week studying videotape of the Texans' defense, describing it to one friend as a "tough" scheme but one against which he felt comfortable he could succeed. The 3-4 alignment of Houston coach Dom Capers can be challenging even for a veteran quarterback because of its blitzes and rushes from unusual angles, but the former Marshall star seems poised, in every sense of the word, for his first start.

Brunell, who needed five stitches to close a wound to his left (passing) elbow after Sunday's loss at Indianapolis -- he scuffed it on the RCA Dome's artificial surface but continued to play -- watched Wednesday's and Thursday's practices. Leftwich took most of the snaps with the first-unit offense both days, while backup David Garrard also took a few.

Following Thursday's workout, Brunell said his elbow had improved but he may be resigned to a change that could signal the end of an era for the franchise.

"I don't want this thing to get infected," Brunell, who's listed as questionable on the official injury report, said Wednesday. "The cut is right on the joint, so if I get any kind of infection, I'm in trouble. It's an open wound and I have to be smart."

In two relief appearances in the first three weeks, all losses, Leftwich has completed 11 of 13 passes for 124 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and a passer rating of 146.0. He has continued to show respect for Brunell while acknowledging he is prepared to play, and that Jacksonville's game plan will not have to be scaled back if he is the starter.

"We won't have to limit the offense because of me," Leftwich said.

If the switch to Leftwich is for the duration of the season, it would essentially confirm that the Jags are in full rebuilding mode. The team sent confusing messages during the offseason, jettisoning some veterans in decline but adding enough free agents to create the perception that management believed the club could be competitive in '03.

But the 0-3 start is the worst since Jacksonville's inaugural 1995 season, when the team also was winless after three outings, and there have not been many signs the Jaguars will be a viable contender this year. Since this almost certainly is Brunell's final season with the team -- his declining skills, along with salary cap ramifications, all but mandate that he will be released or traded next spring -- management could opt to begin preparing for the future now with Leftwich as the starter.

After the Sunday game, the Jaguars return home for games against San Diego and Miami. A win at Houston might spur ticket sales and keep Leftwich in the lineup.

Certainly the rookie, who missed all of training camp in a contract dispute, does not lack for confidence. He is, without doubt, the face of the franchise's future. And that future, no matter how callow Leftwich is, could be now.

If so, it will end a stretch in which Brunell has been one of the league's most effective quarterbacks, and in which he started 10 games or more in his eight seasons with the team. Brunell, 33, twice led the Jaguars to the AFC championship game in those eight years. He was acquired from Green Bay in a 1995 trade.

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