A year ago, when someone suggested Byron Leftwich wasn't ready – that the Jacksonville Jaguars and their quarterback had some maturing to do – Leftwich shook his head in nonchalance. History insisted they needed another year of ripening, but Leftwich wasn't buying it.
"You can make history whatever you want," Leftwich said a year ago, when he was only a few weeks shy of his second season. "I can come up with some history about anything. Sometimes I don't agree or go with history. Sometimes I do things different."
And, well, sometimes you eat your words.
Spun through a year that saw Leftwich make steady improvements but struggle to lead the Jaguars to points or playoff games, Jacksonville is back to a precocious starting line. But this time, entering the third year of Leftwich's development, the Jaguars may have history on their side. No longer just a trendy pick to make the playoffs, the Jaguars have the look of a team that could be a safe AFC playoff bet – and a solid Super Bowl contender.
Not that the Jaguars don't have their share of problems.
Running back Fred Taylor still is nursing a knee injury and won't be in full health until mid-July at the earliest. Second-year wide receiver Reggie Williams has looked solid in his offseason work but still is taking small steps toward improvement. And the defense lacks a sure No. 2 cornerback to start opposite the ultratalented Rashean Mathis – something the team focused on as it worked out free agent Ty Law on Thursday.
"Believe me, we have a lot of work to do," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said as the team headed into a spate of organized team activities last week. "The thing that people sometimes misunderstand is that you have to go back and redefine yourself every year. You can't take for granted that you're going to be a stout defense against the run. You can't take for granted that you're going to be able to block people up and not give up sacks. So you don't want to take anything for granted.
"By the same token, you don't want to also sell yourself short. We have an opportunity to create whatever we'd like this year."
Jacksonville's defense should be one the league's best with the signing of defensive end Reggie Hayward and the continued maturation of linebacker Daryl Smith and defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. And that's without factoring in Law, who may become too expensive if he can string together solid auditions for a handful of teams over the next two weeks. Even without Law, rookie Scott Starks or young cornerback David Richardson may be ready to play opposite Mathis.
That leaves an agenda with a heavy focus on offense and a unit that ultimately dragged the Jaguars out of the playoffs last season. Only three teams averaged less than the Jaguars' tepid 16.3 points per game last season, and all of them finished last in their division – San Francisco, Washington and Chicago.
Had it not been for Jacksonville's opportunistic defense, which allowed the fifth fewest points (17.5) in the AFC, the Jaguars' offensive struggles would have buried them in the AFC South basement. Had the Jaguars eked out one more win late in the schedule – a 21-0 home loss to Houston on Dec. 26 hurt the most – they would have advanced to their first playoff berth since Del Rio took the helm in 2003.
A little offensive development could go a long way this season, particularly in the receiving corps, where Jimmy Smith sorely needs to be complemented. Williams was a major disappointment as a rookie, and now Jacksonville has added another project in Matt Jones to go along with maturing red-zone threat Ernest Wilford. That's a raw threesome who could seriously burden the offense again if Taylor is slow to return from a knee injury.
All of which puts pressure squarely back on Leftwich, who has coaches buzzing about his improvement this summer. The pieces slowly are developing around him to give the Jaguars the look of a contender. This time around, Leftwich might be right when he insists history won't have the final say.
- A tip of the cap to retiring Pittsburgh Steelers radio broadcaster Myron Cope – creator of the "Terrible Towel" and the first to dub the team's 1970s defenses as the "Steel Curtain." Take away Cope's sandpaper growl, and a 1-yard touchdown run by Jerome Bettis just won't sound the same for the Steeler faithful.
- Regardless of whether he was in perfect health or not at the start of the NFL Europe season, Craig Krenzel made a mistake by choosing not to play overseas. Rumblings out of the Chicago Bears organization insist that Krenzel could have played in Europe but simply wasn't interested – and it's believed that refusal contributed to his release by the team last week.
Krenzel signed with the Cincinnati Bengals this week and continued to insist he wasn't 100-percent healthy when the spring games began. Whatever the case, it's hard to justify a quarterback passing up even a limited opportunity when he completed a shade less than 47 percent of his passes last season.
- If nothing else, the Bengals' run defense should be interesting now that it appears rookies David Pollack and Odell Thurman have taken over starting linebacker positions. With Thurman in the middle and Pollack on the strong side, the onus is going to be on free-agent signee Bryan Robinson. Not only is Robinson going to be expected to free up John Thornton from double-teams, but also he's going to have to protect Pollack and Thurman in run defense.
- If there ever were an indication Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden was feeling some pressure, it came this week when he closed the team's mandatory minicamp. Gruden has taken his fair share of punishment from skeptics over the last two seasons, which included only 12 wins and the departure of general manager and league media darling Rich McKay. Clearly Gruden is feeling bruised after so many of his personnel additions from last season flopped (Joey Galloway, Charlie Garner, etc.).
- It's not going to solve their problems at wide receiver, but the San Francisco 49ers made a good move bringing in Johnnie Morton this week. While his best years are behind him, Morton still has enough left in the tank to move to the head of a 49ers receiving unit that will round out with Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd. More importantly, Morton brings solid character to the locker room, and it speaks volumes that coach Mike Nolan went after him after passing on David Boston and Koren Robinson.