Jags cut Garrard and odds of winning division

In the nine-year history of the AFC South, the Indianapolis Colts have won it seven times. They’ve reached the playoffs all nine years. They’ve dominated the division as the measuring stick that few could stand up against.

And when we say the Indianapolis Colts, we mean Peyton Manning(notes). Yes, there has been a lengthy parade of other great Colt players, but everything in Indy starts with No. 18.

Quarterback David Garrard was ultimately sacked by the Jaguars.
(AP)

Or, with Manning dealing with a neck injury that should cause him to miss unknown amounts of the season, everything could end with No. 18.

With the AFC South suddenly wide open, what do the Jacksonville Jaguars do on Tuesday?

They surprisingly cut their most proven starting quarterback, David Garrard(notes), and name journeyman Luke McCown(notes) the No. 1. Rookie Blaine Gabbert(notes), who has shown potential yet also plenty of rough edges, will presumably be the No. 2.

“I think it’s a combination [of things],” coach Jack Del Rio said Tuesday afternoon. “I think Luke played well, I think we have the emergence of a good player here [in Gabbert] and David couldn’t get it going.”

The move was stunning for its timing – both five days before the Jaguars’ home-opener against the Tennessee Titans and one day after the disclosure that iron man Manning is likely out for the foreseeable future.

The Manning news shook the entire NFL, but it was an earthquake in the AFC South, the division he’s ruled.

[Related: Jags plan to start Luke McCown]

Del Rio was adamant to a surprised local media and fan base that McCown had won the job in the preseason. And there is no reason to doubt him. The question is why the Jaguars completely dumped Garrard? Is he really that done? Don’t you want to keep a guy who’s at least proven over the years to be a viable starter?

Garrard may not be an elite quarterback but he may be enough to win the AFC South this season. McCown, meanwhile, has spent his entire career as a backup. He entered the NFL in 2004, has played in just 16 games, starting only seven. He had a decent, if uneventful, preseason – 12-of-18, 133 yards, two TDs and no picks in two games. Of course, that was mostly against second- and third-string defenses.

Gabbert may be ready sooner than later – he’s said to be a quick study after coming out of Missouri’s spread offense. Perhaps this is a set-up for him to take the reins by midseason. But that doesn’t speak to a desire to win today.

General manager Gene Smith was pointed in saying this was only a football decision. Maybe, but it’s worth remembering Garrard would’ve been owed about $9 million this season and the Jags are again facing a season full of local blackouts (they are reportedly 7,000 seats short of a sellout Sunday).

One thing you can all but rule out is the Tim Tebow(notes) factor. The Florida Gator icon is immensely popular in the Jacksonville-Gainesville area and is currently buried on the Denver Broncos’ depth chart. However, Jacksonville sources told Yahoo! Sports’ Jason Cole, that they are committed to Gabbert and love his future.

Besides, it was just last April when the Jags swapped first-round picks and sent a second-rounder to Washington to move up to 10th overall and take Gabbert. They didn’t make a similar move to get Tebow the year before. It’s counter-intuitive to suggest they’re looking to bring in another young competitor who would immediately have the fans on his side.

Well, other than to sell tickets.

“I’m really not in the ticket business,” Del Rio said. “We’re just trying to put out the best football team we can.”

Journeyman Luke McCown (right) is the answer now over rookie Blaine Gabbert (left).
(Getty Images)

Garrard got the starting job in similar fashion and perhaps that is the one thing Jags fans can lean back on. In 2007, Jacksonville cut previous starter Brian Leftwich on the eve of the season, installed Garrard as the No. 1 and wound up in the playoffs.

In truth, this is different. Garrard had started 10 games the previous season for an injury-hobbled Leftwich. McCown hasn’t started a game or thrown a touchdown pass since 2007, when he was in Tampa.

“I think it’s imperative that we have the courage to do what’s best for the football team. This decision was pure football,” Del Rio said.

Courageous indeed. If McCown doesn’t come out and deliver and Gabbert isn’t ready soon, then there isn’t much of a backup plan.

Garrard is 33 and may not be the future, but with the division suddenly possible, he seemed like a viable short-term strategy. At least to keep around in case he can get it going. He went 8-6 as a starter last season, throwing 23 TD passes against 15 interceptions.

Now he’s gone. Smith, the GM, praised Garrard for his professionalism, “I admire him as a man even more than as a player.”

This was a football decision they kept saying. Not money. Not salary. Not revenue for a franchise that’s forever rumored to be headed to Los Angeles. Del Rio put his credibility on the table for the fan acceptance to fall back on.

Time and Luke McCown will tell because as circumstances had unexpectedly made the season look brighter, Jacksonville decided to go all in on a journeyman.

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Sep 6, 2011