The Jacksonville Jaguars took a step forward in 2005, earning their first playoff berth since 1999. And although they were ousted by the Patriots in a lopsided 28-3 spectacle, their undisputed leader of the offense, quarterback Byron Leftwich, believes the team can pick up where it left off and improve in 2006.
"We know we have a good football team. We went 12-4 last year," he said. "We just have to tweak some things in order for us to take it to the next level."
But don't let the word "tweak" mislead you. Leftwich doesn't think that focusing on one or two things will miraculously launch this team past the Colts for the AFC South Division title and another run at the Lombardi Trophy. He knows it's going to take the focus and desire of every member of the team.
"I have to get better as a quarterback," he said. "Everybody has to get better at what they do.
"We have to make sure we are more understanding of everything around us. All 11 people have to understand what we have to do and what everybody's responsibility is on every play. I believe we will do that having another year and an offseason under this system."
The Jaguars offense was still considered by many to be the weak sister of their staunch defense in 2005, but that may not have been a fair assessment. As they learned offensive coordinator Carl Smith's new system, the offense became more diverse. And it paid off on the scoreboard with the Jaguars adding an average of just over 6 points per game compared to their 2004 results under former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Jacksonville's 22.6 points scored per game combined with arguably one of the toughest defenses in the league provided them with the balance they had been missing for years.
Leftwich explained the difference between Musgrave and Smith's approaches.
"We went from a west coast system to ‘our' system, what I like to do well, what Fred (Taylor) likes to do well," he said. "It's not really a system. It's going to cater to the players more to allow us to make more plays."
Despite the Jaguars improvement on offense, Leftwich still hears murmuring by fans and the media questioning whether or not his throwing motion limits his success as a quarterback. The chatter doesn't deter him or distract him.
"My throwing motion is going to be my throwing motion. That is the way it is," he said. "The way you are raised on how to throw a football is how you are going to throw it. My throwing motion will not change."
But one thing Leftwich does hope will change is the number of hits he takes this season. He was sidelined with an ankle injury for the last five weeks of the regular season. And there was a raging debate heading into the playoff game at New England regarding whether or not he was ready for action, or would at minimum be rusty after a five-week layoff and should defer to David Garrard. But there's no doubt that he's fully healthy now.
‘I'm 105 (percent). I'm feeling great," Leftwich said. And while he hopes for improved protection, he knows the reality of football is that he will have to absorb his share of hard knocks during the year.
"I don't like to get hit. Those guys (offensive line) don't like me to get hit," he said. "I know they work their butts off to keep those guys off of me, but you have to understand that this is football. This is not basketball where you just bump into each other. It's a game where defenses will use all 11 guys to try and find a way to get to the quarterback. Sometimes that is going to happen."
So as the Jaguars go through the paces of their offseason workouts this year, there are less questions to be answered. Less uncertainty. And more confidence. They know this isn't a rebuilding year. It's a build-upon success year. Head coach Jack Del Rio stated at this year's owner's meeting in Orlando that the goal for the Jaguars in 2006 is to win a postseason game. Leftwich agreed, but just like Del Rio, he undoubtedly sees that as the minimum goal.
"That is part of our goal. Once you get into the playoffs as Pittsburgh showed, you have to be thinking that you can win the Super Bowl because it's so hard to get there," Leftwich said. "Once you get into the tournament anyone has a chance to win it. I think that is our goal."
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