We have seen this move from Jack Del Rio before. And strangely enough, the last time he blind-sided us by cutting his starting quarterback just days before the season opener, things worked out very well for the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Almost four years ago to the day, Del Rio released veteran quarterback Byron Leftwich on Sept. 1, 2007, just a little more than a week before Jacksonville opened its season at home against Tennessee. Del Rio had drafted Leftwich in the first round in 2003, but after four mostly frustrating and injury-plagued seasons, he gave up on the immobile ex-Marshall standout and tossed the keys to the team's more athletic backup, David Garrard.
"To make a decision this bold requires some strong conviction, and I have that,'' Del Rio said at the time.
Fast forward to Tuesday. This time, it was Garrard who got the surprising early September boot, after four mostly frustrating and underachieving seasons. When the Jaguars open the season on Sunday at home against -- you guessed it -- Tennessee, veteran Luke McCown will be running the Jacksonville offense.
I suppose Del Rio and Jaguars fans everywhere are hoping that history repeats itself, because in 2007, Jacksonville went on to finish 11-5, earn a wild-card berth and upset the Steelers in a first-round playoff game at Pittsburgh -- the franchise's most recent trip to the postseason. Garrard was mostly stellar that season, tossing 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions in 12 starts, eventually earning himself a rich contract extension the following spring.
But is this another last-minute stroke of genius by Del Rio, or an act of final desperation? The results of the looming 2011 season should tell the story very clearly in Jacksonville.
Garrard, 33, and with a history of recent back troubles, was working with a ticking clock over his head in Jacksonville any way this season. The team drafted Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick in April, and it was only a matter of time before he took over for the Jaguars and got his starting shot. But after a so-so preseason by the rookie, the threat posed by Gabbert seemed to have subsided for now. Garrard, a Pro Bowl pick as recently as 2009, looked like he had survived and would get the opportunity to open Del Rio's ninth and most pivotal season yet in Jacksonville. But it was not to be.
The real twist here is that Gabbert, the fans' favorite, isn't getting the call to start from Del Rio. It's McCown, the eighth-year veteran who's been little more than a journeyman in his NFL career. If Del Rio believes he gives Jacksonville its best shot to win, it speaks to how far away Gabbert remains from being ready to assume the No. 1 job, and how much the head coach had soured on Garrard, his onetime savior. Is it a case of Del Rio having another dose of strong conviction, or just little left to lose? You decide.
After three consecutive non-winning seasons, Del Rio knows he needs to win now. Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver brought him back this season, but there's clearly a playoffs-or-bust edict in the air. Given that backdrop, Del Rio obviously wasn't prepared to go down with the ship, as long as Garrard was at the wheel. While saving about $9 million with Garrard's release is nice, Tuesday's big headline is more about Del Rio taking his best shot with his own guy, even if that guy is a player with as sparse a track record as McCown. Del Rio probably didn't think he had the patience to wait for Gabbert to develop, nor the stomach to endure another two steps forward, three steps back kind of season from Garrard.
So, once again, the Jaguars head coach has decided to roll the dice, and to do so at the game's most crucial position. Just five days before the Titans visit Jacksonville with a pair of new quarterbacks themselves in veteran Matt Hasselbeck and rookie Jake Locker (No. 8 overall), the Jaguars have trumped them and gone for broke. Instead of Garrard serving to hold down the fort until Gabbert is elevated, it'll be McCown for now, with perhaps the future in Jacksonville only unveiling itself on a week by week basis this season.
After all, with Peyton Manning perhaps out of the Colts lineup for an extended period, the AFC South looks more winnable than it did just days ago. Be it brilliance, or the kind of folly that's born out of too much pressure, just such a late summer gamble has worked once before for Del Rio, with great results. In his own mind, the echo of 2007 must be unmistakable. Now we get to find out if the Jaguars can replace Garrard with someone like, well, Garrard, circa 2007. So far, maybe Del Rio alone is the only one who looks at McCown and sees the future.