- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

Last November, in front of friends, family and thousands of towel-waving Pittsburgh Steelers fans at FedEx Field, Byron Leftwich replaced an injured Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and helped the Steelers beat the Washington Redskins.

Leftwich, who grew up in Southeast and starred at H.D. Woodson High School, signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason. He won the starting job in training camp and was looking forward to coming home and playing the Redskins again.

But that was before the Bucs fell to 0-3 in a lopsided home loss to the New York Giants on Sunday and before Leftwich lost his job.

On Monday, rookie Bucs coach Raheem Morris demoted Leftwich all the way to No. 3 quarterback behind the new starter, Josh Johnson, and rookie Josh Freeman. Leftwich might wear a cap or a headset, but no heroics against the Redskins on Sunday will be forthcoming.

“To be honest with you, I think we all knew that I had to win coming out of the gates,” Leftwich told reporters Wednesday. “I knew if we didn’t win any football games that there was going to be a change no matter how good I played.

“I knew we couldn’t constantly lose football games with two young guys under me and all you guys saying we’re rebuilding and everything. I knew we had to win games, and when that [didn’t happen], I wasn’t surprised about it. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t surprised.”

Coincidentally, as a rookie Leftwich replaced veteran Mark Brunell after the Jacksonville Jaguars lost their first three games in 2003.

“There wasn’t anything Brunell did wrong. It’s just that we were 0-3,” Leftwich said. “At the fourth game of the season, they put me in. It’s the exact same scenario, so I would be naive to sit up here and be so mad and act like I don’t understand how this game works. I understand how this game works.”

A seven-year veteran, Leftwich was yanked during the fourth quarter of the 24-0 loss to New York, a game in which the Bucs played worse than the score indicated. They were outgained 397-86 and waited more than 39 minutes for their initial first down. Johnson, a second-year player who was inactive for every game last season, finished the game and gave the offense a spark.

Freeman, the 17th pick in April’s draft, waits as the quarterback of the future.

“One day they’re going to give him the keys,” Leftwich said a few weeks ago. “I’m just going to try to make sure they don’t give him the keys this year.”

The keys belong to the other Josh for now, and Leftwich is the odd man out. Immediately after the Giants game, Morris said Leftwich would start against the Redskins.

“I can’t sit here and tell you that this game can be blamed on any one man,” Morris said. “Five first downs, 0-for-9 on third down, 28 yards rushing. If I take Byron Leftwich out of the game, I might as well take everyone else out with him.”

But after a night and early morning of re-evaluation and film study, Morris changed his mind. The Bucs aren’t going anywhere this season; they might as well look at the kids.

“Now it’s time to let the young guys in and let those guys run with it,” said Leftwich, 29, who started 46 games in four seasons with Jacksonville and played briefly with Atlanta and Pittsburgh. “My job is going to be to help those guys out.”

In their first two games, high-scoring losses to Dallas and Buffalo, the Bucs moved the ball well; Leftwich completed 51 of 91 attempts for 572 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. Against the Giants, he was 7-for-16 for 22 yards and an interception.

“I hate to make this about Byron,” Morris said Monday. “Byron wasn’t the guy who jumped offsides on the second play of the game. Byron wasn’t the guy who let the [defensive tackle] into the backfield on a first-down run.

“He missed a few throws. He didn’t give us the accuracy we wanted. But at the same time, he didn’t drop every pass, so it’s not all on Byron. It’s not all about Byron. But that position, just like the head coach, is usually the guy that gets the blame.”

Tampa Bay, now in full rebuilding mode, had plenty of guys to blame. It didn’t help Leftwich that his running backs managed only 10 yards on the ground.

“Nothing worked all day,” Leftwich said after the game. “It sucks when you play that bad. Because we know we’re a better football team [than that]. … I would never have predicted that. I just didn’t see that coming, the way we worked, the way we prepared.”

Johnson was 4-for-10 for just 36 yards, but he helped produce four first downs on a drive that ended at the New York 5. With Leftwich, the Buccaneers had just one first down.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a game where nothing went right like this,” Leftwich said.

Morris only two weeks ago called Johnson, a 2008 fifth-round draft pick from San Diego, a “career backup.” But he is more seasoned than Freeman and much more mobile than the lumbering, 6-foot-5, 250-pound Leftwich. A 15-yard scramble was enough to make Johnson Tampa Bay’s leading rusher for the game.

“He definitely gives you that dynamic,” Morris said. “He creates a different matchup with people. He gives you a chance to break out of the pocket and make a play with his feet every once in a while. That’s not a secret.”

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