When Luke McCown completed his 73 yard touchdown pass to Troy Williamson it was the first highlight of a thus far benign offensive performance. After the 30 yard scoring pass to John Matthews the conversations turned to the battle for wide receiver slots. When Tiquan Underwood pulled in Luke’s 55 yard pass for a touchdown, two words could be heard throughout Jaguar Nation: Quarterback Controversy.
It is a phrase not unfamiliar to the fan base.
Back in 2007 the storyline played out like a movie. Byron Leftwich, the quarterback who was drafted amid controversy by the new regime of Shack Harris and Jack Del Rio, was in a contract year. Over the past two seasons he battled multiple injuries, public feuds with his coach, negative public sentiment and a charge from backup David Garrard. Though the team’s record showed progress as a starter, Byron was not showing the progress expected of a high first round draft pick.
Coming off a 9-7 record in 2004, the expectations for 2005 included the playoffs. With Byron leading, the Jaguars would start 7-3. However, an injury to Byron's ankle during a week 12 game at Arizona forced David come in and he won five of the remaining six games, earning Jacksonville a Wild Card birth.
Let the quarterback controversy begin.
Amidst much speculation of who should start in their game at New England, Del Rio opted to bench the "hot" Garrard for the "healed" Leftwich. In the aftermath of an embarrassing 21-3 loss the questions would not only center around who should have started that game but also who should start period.
When Byron went down with another ankle injury in a week seven game at Houston, Garrard was once again asked to save the season. For Leftwich, his supposed failure to disclose the extent of the injury he had been dealing with most of the season made him unpopular with both coach and fans.
Though David would win five of his next seven starts, putting the team in the playoff hunt at 8-5, it would be the infamous "three game meltdown" which set the tone for the next phase of the quarterback debate. It no longer was clear who the best option was.
Entering 2007, the expectation was that Leftwich would still be the starter. But after an abysmal preseason which was highlighted by continued poor mechanics and decision making in a week three game at Green Bay, Garrard was surprisingly named the starter.
Move to present day.
For the Jaguars the 2010 season has started with a similar storyline. The present starting quarterback, who assumed the role amidst controversy, has battled consistency and the demands from both coach and fans are high. Add to that, after a 2007 season which saw the team make an inspiring playoff run, and gave Garrard a hefty raise, the team has struggled through two straight seasons without a playoff appearance.
This past Friday’s first team performance did nothing to sway opinion in Garrard’s favor. With McCown lighting up the Philadelphia sky, albeit against second teamers, those wanting a quarterback change may now have a serviceable alternative.
But how much should we take from three series in the first preseason game? Even back in 2007 the change wasn’t made until Byron saw considerable time with the first team offense. Asking Jack to make a change would be premature. At the very least David deserves time behind the healthiest offensive line the team is able to field during these initial four games.
Even looking only at the statistics would be a disservice to David. On more than one occasion he was forced to get rid of the ball quickly. Of his five completions three of them were quick tosses to either the running back or a wide receiver. On a fourth down pass to Mike Sims-Walker he was forced to release high as the right tackle completely missed his block, allowing the defensive end, basically, a free shot.
The problem, fairly or not, is that reasons for why Garrard cannot perform better are wearing thin.
We have seen the potential. In 2007 David inherited a below average receiving corps (a defense once used for Byron’s lack of success) yet still managed to make that playoff run. With Sims-Walker, Mike Thomas and Marcedes Lewis his weapons are vastly improved. He played 2008 with a decimated offensive line and for that was given a pass. In 2009 he had two rookie tackles and a below average interior line yet managed to have the team in playoff contention.
Even with these successes of getting the most from the limited resources around him, David is still haunted by last year’s late season collapse along with massive duds against Seattle and San Francisco.
Now with McCown’s success there is curiosity in what he can do and why he hasn’t done it before. Was this just an anomaly? Once the offensive line is healthy, will we see David perform just as efficiently?
I’m not sure those are actually the questions we should be asking. Luke hasn’t had a stellar camp and therefore his role as backup is justly earned. But the same could’ve been said about David back in 2007. Though there was much leading up to the decision, it was Garrard’s performance as a second stringer in game situations which forced the coaches to take notice. Far greater was his regular season success leading up to his promotion, something, to David's degree, McCown cannot claim.
The more compelling question may be what the backup quarterback has to do in order to get that opportunity with the first string offense against a first string defense. Additionally you have to ask, if the counterargument will continue to be that the stats are only against other backups, by what do you judge him?
I don’t think anyone would expect Jack to pull the trigger on Garrard after just one preseason game. Factor in the missing starters on the line and David’s camp success (specifically in Atlanta) and there is enough to keep the torches unlit and the pitchforks in the barn. What it does do is to make these preseason games even more significant. What if there is a repeat performance?
Del Rio has shown us he will make the change, but for those wanting McCown, one highlight reel doesn't clearly define him as the heir apparent. There simply isn’t enough evidence to warrant a quarterback controversy.