- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Byron Leftwich lives in Atlanta, trains in South Florida and spends most weekends back home in the D.C. area. He has several places to hang his hat. But right now he has nowhere to hang his helmet.

With NFL training camps starting within a month, the former quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars and, briefly, the Atlanta Falcons, remains a free agent. It’s a sudden and unusual turn. Only 28, Leftwich was a starter one minute, unemployed the next.

“It went from so good to so bad real quick,” he said.

Leftwich played three sports at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast and became a star at Marshall in West Virginia. The Jaguars took Leftwich seventh in the 2003 draft, the next quarterback taken after No. 1 pick Carson Palmer. As a rookie, he replaced the injured Mark Brunell and produced good numbers. He was better the next year and better still in 2005, when the Jaguars made the playoffs.

But he got hurt late that season, and injuries, specifically lower leg injuries, became the major issue. At 6-foot-5, 250-pounds with limited mobility, Leftwich was an easy target.

“I [went from] the toughest guy in the NFL to the most injury prone,” he said in a telephone interview last week from his Atlanta home.

Leftwich was taking a week-long break from his daily 3 1/2-hour workout regimen at a high-tech training facility near Miami. NFL stars Plaxico Burress, Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin and good friend and former Jaguars teammate Fred Taylor have been among those working alongside. He said he has lost 25 pounds.

“If I put on a No. 81 jersey, people will think I’m Randy Moss,” he said.

His coach at Marshall, Bob Pruett, now an assistant at Virginia, called Leftwich “the most positive guy I’ve ever been around.” Even with his once-promising career stuck in limbo, Leftwich said he is going to make a comeback worthy of Seabiscuit.

“I believe in myself,” he said. “I’ve got confidence in myself. I won’t allow this to start second-guessing my ability. These types of things happen, man. You’ve got to stand up and see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know I can play the game of football. I’m not gonna let nobody tell me I can’t.”

Few probably would say that. But his health and durability were concerns even before the draft. As a junior at Marshall, Leftwich suffered a stress fracture in his left shin that required the insertion of a metal rod. Famously, he left a game in the first quarter against Akron during his senior year with a hairline fracture in his left leg just above the ankle, only to return and try to bring his team back from a big deficit. Marshall lost, but the enduring image is of teammates carrying Leftwich down the field for the next play after he completed a long pass.

In 2004 with the Jaguars, Leftwich suffered a slightly torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee. The worst injury occurred in 2005, when he broke his left ankle against Arizona and missed the last five games of the regular season. At the time, he had 15 touchdown passes, five interceptions and a passer rating of 89.3, which would be his career best.

Leftwich returned for a playoff loss to New England. He was rusty, and he also hinted at additional damage that went undetected. He would not explain further.

“I’m saving it for the book I’m gonna write one day,” he said, laughing.

In October 2006, Leftwich reinjured his postsurgical ankle against the Washington Redskins. He toughed out the rest of that game and the next one. A bye week presumably helped, but Leftwich said he woke up the morning before the Houston game the following week “and I couldn’t walk.” He played anyway and said he could have continued playing, but Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio benched Leftwich for backup David Garrard. Leftwich did not respond favorably; he and Del Rio had a stormy relationship, and this didn’t help matters.

The more mobile Garrard played well, leading to speculation he might take over for good, especially given that trading or releasing Leftwich would save the Jaguars $5.15 million against the 2007 salary cap. But Del Rio named Leftwich the starter early in the offseason. A poor preseason, however, combined with Garrard’s development, prompted the Jaguars to cut Leftwich nine days before the regular season.

“I didn’t see it coming. No way, no how,” Taylor told reporters at the time. “I needed one of those telescopes that goes to Mars.”

Leftwich predictably said he doesn’t want to say anything negative about Del Rio or what happened in Jacksonville, other than he regrets not playing for assistant coaches Mike Shula and Dirk Koetter, who were hired before last season.

“I had a great relationship with them,” he said. “It’s frustrating not getting to play with coaches of that magnitude.”

James Harris, the Jaguars’ vice president of player personnel, said he did not want to “relive” what happened with Leftwich.

“I can only say that he’s a smart guy that had some good years for us,” he said. “He had a winning record. He has a good arm. A tough guy. He had some injuries that affected his production and ability to get on the field. … I would think that he would play again.”

Atlanta, saddled with quarterback problems in the wake of Michael Vick’s legal issues, signed Leftwich after his release. But he suffered a badly sprained right ankle against New Orleans, and screws were inserted in the ankle to help the healing process.

With the franchise reeling from the Vick situation, the sudden departure of coach Bobby Petrino and a general lack of talent, Atlanta launched a full-scale rebuilding effort. The club released Leftwich along with several other veterans and drafted quarterback Matt Ryan with its first-round pick.

“I know teams are thinking, ‘Hey, this guy’s getting injured every year,’” Leftwich said. “A lot of teams are scared of taking a chance on me. We all know I can play once I’m out there. But I don’t really know. I know somebody’s gonna give me the opportunity, and when I get that opportunity, somebody’s gonna take advantage.”

Leftwich’s injury history “is a legitimate concern,” former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “Plus, Byron’s one of those guys that will sit in the pocket and take the hit. He’ll wait till the last second, but a price comes with that.”

Billick, now a game analyst for Fox, liked Leftwich enough in college that the Ravens tried to work a deal with the Minnesota Vikings to trade up in the draft. But in an infamous draft day snafu, the Vikings took too much time - some say the Jaguars intentionally stalled them - and lost the pick, allowing Jacksonville to take Leftwich. The Ravens were still happy, taking linebacker Terrell Suggs and then Kyle Boller, the quarterback they had rated right behind Leftwich.

“He can throw it,” Billick said of Leftwich. “There’s never been a question about his ability. He’s got one of those unique arms. He proved to be fairly accurate. He has a bit of a wind-up, but he has the arm strength and anticipation to counter that. Most of the problems stem from his injuries.

“I don’t think anyone’s questioning his courage,” Billick said. “But you’re talking about the ankle and the pivot point [in his delivery] and how important that is. It’s gonna be a concern. But he’s gonna get another opportunity.”

Leftwich is an “interesting guy,” Chicago Bears pro personnel director Bobby DePaul said. “He did have some success, but he had some durability issues that kind of catches up to you.”

Other than that, “he has all the intangibles you’re looking for,” DePaul said. “He’s a high character, highly intelligent team guy.”

Leftwich knows he can’t hide his history, but he won’t give in to it.

“I just look at it as bad luck,” he said. “I’ve had some good things happen to me, and I’ve had some bad things happen to me.” He insists he has been “completely healthy” for several months.

Then there are the other knocks, with which he is well acquainted.

Of his perceived lack of mobility, he said, “Like I said from the second I got to the league, I’m not the slowest quarterback in the league. I’m the slowest black quarterback. But I’m not 32nd [in speed]. I know I’m not, by far.”

Of his “wind-up,” he said: “You look at all 32 [starting quarterbacks], and they all throw the ball differently. “I’ve been with a lot of coaches, and it was never a problem for them. When you’re in the situation I’m in and people are searching for answers, they begin to say anything.”

And on whether he could handle being a backup, Leftwich said, “I believe so. That’s not where my mind-set is, but at the same time, I want to do whatever I can to help a football team. I just want to have the opportunity. Just give me the opportunity, and we’ll go from there.”

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