Is Del Rio Gambling With His QB?

The New England Patriots are preparing for either quarterback to play says the team. If that's the case, then Byron Leftwich should have little advantage coming back from an ankle injury that has sidelined him much of the season. One challenge he must face besides the Patriots defense, is how to shake the rust off after not playing for close to two months. Are the Jags better off with backup David Garrard at this point, or should Leftwich get the nod?

Will Bryon Leftwich be rusty for the Saturday night's playoff game against New England after being sidelined since he broke his ankle Nov. 27 at Arizona?

That's the question the Jaguars are facing, because Leftwich appears to be getting the starting nod.

When coach Jack Del Rio said Sunday after the Tennessee game that, barring a setback, Leftwich would start, there was some speculation that it was a smokescreen to keep Patriots coach Bill Belichick guessing. The speculation was that he might give Leftwich and backup David Garrard equal snaps this week and not name the starter until just before the kickoff the way he did last week.

Instead, when the team started practicing Tuesday for the New England game, Leftwich took virtually all the snaps, a sign he'll likely start. Garrard reverted to his backup status and took only a couple of snaps with the first team.

Leftwich said he still has pain in the ankle and also suffered a high ankle sprain when he broke the ankle, but said he can deal with the pain.

If Leftwich plays well against New England and leads the Jaguars to an upset victory, Del Rio will be vindicated for going with Leftwich.

But if Leftwich shows obvious signs of rust and is ineffective against the Patriots, Del Rio will be the subject of much second-guessing for not giving him playing time against the Titans or going with Garrard against the Patriots.

Del Rio, though, didn't seem concerned about Leftwich being rusty.

"The old saying, 'It is what it is,' so we'll see. He's preparing to play, and as long as I feel he can protect himself and give us the best chance to win, then he'll play," Del Rio said at a press conference Wednesday.

He was even more definite in a conference call with the New England media, when he said, "Not really" when he was asked if he's worried about Leftwich being rusty.

When he was asked about the gamble he's taking, he said he's taken a lot of gambles, including going with rookies Derrick Wimbush and Alvin Pearman as the kickoff and punt returners.

"There are no guarantees in life. There are no guarantees in the game of football. I think that as a coach what I really focus on is gathering as much information (as I can) and trying to assemble the strongest team that I can to go out and do battle each week. We want to focus on the matchups and where we can get favorable matchups," Del Rio said.

When he was asked if it's almost unfair to Leftwich to put him in a playoff game after he hasn't played in six weeks, the coach said, "It's an interesting way of looking at it. I focus more of my energy on preparation and matchups and things like that and less time worrying about how it's going to be viewed by whoever."

After he was pressed one more time on his reasons for the move, he said, "I really can't give you any more insight to what I believe."

When Leftwich was asked if he'll be rusty, he said, "We are going to find out. I'm not looking rusty in practice."

He's also excited about playing and confident he can do well.

"Everything is feeling good. My timing is looking good. I feel fine. I didn't hurt my arm. I still know how to throw the football. I still know how to go to the right place with the football. I don't think I got any dumber (during his layoff)," he said.

Of the pain, he said, "I'm feeling better every day. I'm doing everything I was able to do before I got hurt."


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