Almost 15 years after Byron Leftwich was surprisingly kicked to the curb by the Jaguars, it seems rather surreal that the exiled quarterback could be summoned back as the franchise’s seventh head coach.
Since late Tuesday night through noon Wednesday, there was varying speculation on social media about Leftwich either becoming the next coach or working out contract details to do so. However, there was no official confirmation from the Jaguars or owner Shad Khan that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator was returning to Jacksonville as Urban Meyer’s successor.
But the mere fact that Leftwich is viewed as a frontrunner for the job -- perhaps more so since a scheduled Thursday interview with Green Bay Packers coach Nathaniel Hackett is off with his reported agreement to take the Denver Broncos job -- is another reminder on how fast things can change in the NFL and that nothing is really forever.
If Leftwich becomes the head coach, it’d be a remarkable comeback story considering how he was surprisingly released by the Jaguars eight days before the 2007 season opener in favor of David Garrard. That decision came nearly seven months after then-head coach Jack Del Rio had publicly committed to Leftwich as the starter, only to change his mind and cut the 2003 first-round draft pick without gaining any compensation.
It’s hard to imagine Leftwich was either happy or even relieved when the Jaguars cut him. He was only 27 at the time and in the prime of his career. He would go on to spend five seasons with three different teams, never winning a game in six replacement starts.
Granted, Leftwich’s departure from Jacksonville all happened when the Jaguars were under different ownership and all the significant players in the organization are long gone. Still, it’d be quite the irony if he returns as the sideline boss of a franchise that dismissed him as a player in such stunning fashion.
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The truth is Leftwich was not always treated fairly by the Jaguars’ fan base, which now has been embracing him as the potential next head coach for the past week. Once it appeared former NFL head coaches Doug Pederson and Jim Caldwell – among the first candidates to be interviewed for the job – were losing momentum as potential frontrunners, Leftwich instantly became the fan favorite.
The Jaguars have only had two of nine initial candidates return for a second interview, Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and Leftwich. That second interview is a testament to the respect he has procured in just five seasons as an NFL coach. All of Leftwich's coaching years were under Buccaneers’ head coach Bruce Arians, including two seasons when he was with the Arizona Cardinals (2017-18).
Until Arians, who coached Leftwich when he was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ backup quarterback (2008) as his offensive coordinator, prodded his former pupil to get into NFL coaching, the ex-Jaguars' quarterback was enjoying a leisurely retirement life and playing golf five days a week in his native Washington, D.C. area.
But since rising up the coaching ranks and being Tom Brady’s play-caller during last year’s Super Bowl championship run, Leftwich has been considered one of the league’s hot head coaching prospects. Now, unless the Jaguars’ coaching search takes another unexpected turn, he may be poised to become the first full-time Black head coach in franchise history.
Whether Leftwich becomes the coach Thursday, Friday or next week, it doesn’t change the fact that the Marshall University product has a challenging job ahead. The Jaguars have some talent, but not enough yet around promising quarterback Trevor Lawrence to be a serious challenger in the AFC South, let alone be a consistent playoff presence.
There's still uncertainty around Trent Baalke as general manager in 2022
Plus, we still don’t know for certain yet if the next head coach will be working in partnership with general manager Trent Baalke, a different GM or if they will report to an unnamed executive vice-president or Khan.
Once Meyer was fired on December 16, Khan only stated that Baalke would remain in the GM post without saying definitively if that also meant for the 2022 season. Not only have the Jaguars not officially named a head coach, but there’s still no clarity on how the front office will be structured or who will be in charge of personnel, Baalke or somebody else.
For Khan, what matters at the moment is getting the right head coach after whiffing on his first four hires – Mike Mularkey (2012), Gus Bradley (2013-16), Doug Marrone (2017-20) and Meyer, who was dismissed after 13 games last season before offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell took over as interim head coach.
Despite only five seasons in the NFL ranks – a relatively short time when you consider Sean McVay had seven years coaching experience before the Los Angeles Rams hired him at age 31 -- Leftwich has institutional knowledge of the league as both a starter and backup quarterback. So any drawback the 42-year-old Buccaneers’ coordinator might have in terms of minimal years spent as a coach, he certainly offsets some of that by his 10 playing seasons of learning different offenses.
Leftwich’s football past with the Jaguars, including his falling out of favor with the fans, especially after the team’s 28-3 playoff loss to the New England Patriots (he was benched for Garrard) in the 2005 season, has no bearing on his readiness to be their next head coach. He had a pedestrian 24-20 record as the team's starting quarterback (2003-06), but also suffered from a timing standpoint of succeeding Mark Brunell (1995-2003), a popular QB who was regarded locally as somewhat of a golden boy.
Among the candidates who have already interviewed for the job, there is no home-run hire. All have their plusses and minuses, so all Jaguars’ fans can do is hope Khan picks the right guy and things work out a lot better than with his previous selections.
This is obviously still a fluid situation, But what an amazing pro football ride it’d be if Byron Antron Leftwich, one of the most affable, outgoing players to ever put on a Jaguars’ uniform, did become the next head coach.
Imagine going from being cast aside in his prime as the starting quarterback, to now possibly being hired as the answer to fix a broken franchise. That would be a remarkable turnaround.
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This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: If Byron Leftwich is next Jaguars' coach, it's a great comeback story