Jaguars need to let Leftwich play

INDIANAPOLIS -- Whether it is accurate or not, the widely held notion in Jacksonville is that, for Jaguars quarterback and 2003 first-round draft choice Byron Leftwich, this is a make-or-break season.

If he plays well and takes the tough and talented Jaguars deep into the playoffs, Leftwich -- whose contract expires after the 2007 campaign -- will make a lot of money with an offseason extension. If he performs less than admirably and the Jags exit the postseason in the first round, as Jacksonville did in an ignominious first-round loss at New England last year, the brain trust might start thinking about breaking in a new quarterback.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Which is fitting because that's precisely where Leftwich's performance often falls, and where it resided again in Sunday's defeat to the host Indianapolis Colts, the latest installment in a series in which Jacksonville often wins the statistical battle but loses the scoreboard war.

One press box observer, who has witnessed virtually every meeting between the two teams, noted after the game that the difference in the outcome once again was the two quarterbacks. And that person was right, but not necessarily for the reason intended. Because the difference between Leftwich and Colts counterpart Peyton Manning wasn't only the numbers each man posted or the fact the Indianapolis star made just enough timely plays to win, as he characteristically does.

Just as significant a difference between the two quarterbacks is how they are viewed by their respective teams, and what their coaching staffs ask of them.

The Colts, week in and week out, rely on Manning to win the game. And the Jaguars, as evidenced again Sunday afternoon, too often set the bar lower for their guy. They essentially ask their quarterback not to lose the contest. There is, of course, a monumental and telling difference in the two approaches and, although the Jacksonville staff might disagree with the assessment, it's an observation that was shared by the players in both locker rooms Sunday evening.

"When [the Jaguars] run the ball on every down," noted Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, "on third-and-20, on third-and-10, whatever, it is easy to adjust and know what they're doing."

Truth be told, it took an entire half, 30 minutes of having the Jags run roughshod in amassing a whopping 157 rushing yards in the first two quarters, before Freeney and his defensive associates made the necessary adjustments to stanch a Jacksonville ground game designed around draw plays and cutbacks. But it was the subliminal message in Freeney's words, the allusion to the Jaguars' running the ball on third-and-long plays, that hit at the crux of the Jaguars' mind-set with their quarterback.

On third-and-long, the Colts count on Manning and coordinator Tom Moore to dial up a miracle. There were seven occasions on which the Indianapolis offense faced third-down plays Sunday needing 7 or more yards to convert. Not surprisingly, the Colts threw all seven times, remarkably converting on five of them, including a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Clark. Every time the Jaguars faced a third down, it seemed, Leftwich handed off to Fred Taylor or mercurial rookie Maurice Jones-Drew.

When in doubt, the Indianapolis coaches always want the ball in Manning's hands. Conversely, in most critical situations Sunday, the Jaguars opted to count on the feet of somebody rather than on the arm of their alleged franchise quarterback. In the matter of trust, draw your own conclusions here.

The point is, if this is indeed the season in which the Jacksonville franchise has to determine its direction at the quarterback position, the team isn't exactly compiling a tomelike body of empirical evidence on which to make its decision on Leftwich's ability to be The Man.

In training camp two months ago, the amiable and outgoing Leftwich told ESPN.com he felt like a machine, referring to his physical toughness. It seems, at times, as if the Jacksonville staff indeed prefers that Leftwich play like a robot. But in the NFL, relegating your quarterback to the equivalent of a human tee, a guy who simply holds the ball up on a perch so one of the running backs can grab it on the way by, doesn't win many championships.

Just as critical to the Jaguars, and to their future and what part Leftwich plays in it, such a design doesn't allow a fair read on any quarterback's potential for becoming, well, Manning-esque.

Why pay a quarterback $14.25 million, which is what the Jaguars have invested in Leftwich through the first three-plus seasons of his career, to be just ordinary? Leftwich has a base salary of $3.96 million for 2006, and you can rent a guy a lot cheaper than that to be just an offensive caretaker. If you're going to pay a guy big money, he ought to have the opportunity to perform as though he's a money player.

Leftwich doesn't get a lot of chances to do that.

In the Sunday loss, he completed two more passes than Manning did, but for 112 fewer yards. Chew on that statistic for a while.

In defense of the Jacksonville offensive staff, its game plan was a clever and effective one for much of the contest. The Jaguars ran 14 times out of the shotgun formation, two times more than they threw from a set that almost always signals a pass, and the gambit kept Freeney and sack partner Robert Mathis limited in their forays into the pocket. And, yeah, on those occasions when Leftwich was allowed to wing it, he was often erratic. His first interception came when he overthrew right end George Wrighster deep up the seam when the receiver was open. On three other occasions, he bounced balls at intended targets.

If this is the way the Jags are going to play in 2006, relying on a defense that surrenders yards as if it were protecting its firstborn and counting on the offense to do just enough (remember, Jacksonville scored just nine points in its allegedly defining victory over Pittsburgh last week), chances are the team will find itself safely in the playoffs.

But probably not in the Super Bowl.

Sure, many of the criticisms of Leftwich are justifiable. There are times it appears he doesn't see the field very well. When he is forced to buy time in the pocket, it takes him a while to reset his feet and get into a throwing stance. He has a big stride when he steps into a throw and has an elongated delivery. But a lot of those deficiencies are correctable traits that, well, never have been corrected adequately.

And so a guy who should, in theory, be more than an adequate quarterback is made to look not much more than ordinary at times. Not only because of his own limitations but also by those imposed upon him.

There remains a disinclination toward finding out just what the parameters of Leftwich's throwing skills are. But when it comes time after this season to make a call on his future, and on whether to invest hugely in a long-term contract extension or simply allow Leftwich to play the 2007 under his original contract, one might assume the Jacksonville brass might want to sit down and review the videotape evidence of his performance before deciding whether it should write a big cashier's check.

Problem is, if Sunday was any indication, there won't be much tape to watch.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.