Hard decision, right call

Jason Cole
Yahoo! SportsSeptember 4, 2007

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – This is the way Jack Del Rio's career ended.

As a player, that is. But in the aftermath of Del Rio's decision to let go of quarterback Byron Leftwich, you can't help but wonder if making a tough decision over who should play a critical position might also hasten Del Rio's departure as the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach.

It shouldn't. In fact, Del Rio should be praised in some respect for remaining open-minded about the prospect of sticking with Leftwich. Truth be told, the two didn't get along and Del Rio could have used that as excuse enough to jettison the former first-round pick in the offseason. Instead, Del Rio gave Leftwich another chance to prove himself, only to see Leftwich continue to muddle along without any real development.

Of course, most fans nor most of the media will see it that way.

Somewhat similarly, when Del Rio still roamed the field in 1996 as a middle linebacker and heady quarterback of the defense, he signed with the Miami Dolphins. The goal was for Del Rio to run then first-year coach Jimmy Johnson's defense as the youngsters learned.

Before Del Rio got through training camp, one of those youngsters, some rookie named Zach Thomas, replaced him. Johnson and the coaching staff saw something special in Thomas, who's still pretty special 11 years later.

Rather than keep Del Rio around as insurance, Johnson believed the situation would be too uncomfortable for both the proud Del Rio and a young team wondering if Thomas really knew how to play. Del Rio was cut in semi-dramatic style.

Not as dramatic as the way Del Rio cut Leftwich. In the spectrum of unexpected moves, including when the New England Patriots dumped popular safety Lawyer Milloy the week before the 2003 season, Del Rio blew away the competition, leaving plenty of players flat-footed in the process.

"Shocked," veteran running back Fred Taylor said Monday after the first practice of the post-Leftwich era. "You're hurt and frustrated. It's like when you break up with your high school girlfriend. When you're around your boys, you pretend you're not hurt, but when you're alone you're like, 'What happened?'"

What happened is that Del Rio knew there had to be a clean break if his team was going to be any good this year, just as Johnson knew years ago there had to be a clean break if Thomas was going to become good quickly.

To leave Leftwich on the team as the backup was impossible. When asked if there was any consideration of hanging on to Leftwich, Del Rio just nodded his head.

"There was no way he was going to accept being a backup," Del Rio said.

When the Jaguars decided on Friday that David Garrard would take over as the starter, Leftwich's agent Tom Condon told Yahoo! Sports that he preferred his client get released so he could seek a fresh start.

"No, it wouldn't have been comfortable for him," Garrard said. "After being the guy to lead the franchise for all those years and then to come in here, to be around town and having people looking at you. Byron is a really talented guy and he needs a clean start somewhere else."

Leftwich's presence would have split the locker room, particularly at the first sign of trouble. Nothing factionalizes a locker room more than a debate over the quarterback, as the Dallas Cowboys might have experienced last year before switching from Drew Bledsoe to Tony Romo.

Still, the reflective effect will shine on Del Rio as the season goes along. The Jaguars are armed with a fine defense and enough young offensive weapons that they should be in the playoff hunt. If they stumble, Del Rio will be second-guessed for upsetting the team on the eve of the season. When Garrard slumps, as players do, Del Rio will get the blame.

Thus, Del Rio may have propped himself up alongside the likes of Tom Coughlin, Jon Gruden, John Fox, Romeo Crennel and Joe Gibbs on the annual coaching hot seat of who might get dismissed first.

Again, that's not particularly fair. It's not as if Del Rio was running off some quarterbacking legend in favor of an unknown commodity. Over the past two years, Garrard and Leftwich had basically split the games evenly (Garrard replaced Leftwich after two plays of a game two years ago).

"We were 10-6 with both of them," Del Rio said.

Yet, the Jaguars decided they could no longer keep both. Despite his big arm and toughness, Leftwich is ponderous in every way: from his cement feet to his overly long release. He's also injury prone, having never played a full season.

Del Rio and the Jaguars saw that for the four years Leftwich was around. Del Rio even went so far as to give it another offseason and training camp to see if there would be improvement. There was none.

And while there are plenty of people who will second-guess Del Rio for not making the move earlier or for not trading Leftwich when he could have gotten something for Leftwich, the truth is that Del Rio took this situation as far as he could in hopes of salvaging something more important for the team.

Even at the risk of damaging his own chance to stay.