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Grading the Buccaneers quarterback play has proven to be quite difficult for Pewter Report during training camp because for the most part, both Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich have run a tight race through eight practices. What has made evaluating the play of both quarterbacks and comparing their performances daunting is the fact that each player has a completely different playing style.
Leftwich is a big-armed, bomb-thrower with a slow, wind-up release and not much mobility. Leftwich throws more touchdowns, but also more interceptions because he telegraphs his passes more with his slower delivery. He also takes more sacks because he’s a pocket passer. Yet Leftwich has been incredibly efficient in the red zone with his touchdown passes.
McCown is a more efficient passer with a solid arm, but not as strong as Leftwich’s. He is not as patient as Leftwich is in letting big plays develop downfield and more cautious throwing deep. As a result, he’s not as good of a deep ball thrower as he is throwing underneath and intermediate routes. McCown is quite mobile and is a very effective scrambler that can keep the play alive with his feet. He throws fewer interceptions, but also fewer touchdowns.
To give fans a better understanding of how each quarterback approaches the game, Pewter Report spoke with both Leftwich and McCown to get it straight from the horses’ mouthes, starting with McCown, who has been groomed under head coach Jon Gruden and quarterbacks coaches Paul Hackett and Greg Olson over the past four years and is under the influence of efficiency, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“We’ve only had a few red zone days, the rest of the time it’s just about the opportunities you get to throw down the field,” said McCown, when asked about his lack of deep touchdown passes in training camp compared to the amount thrown by Leftwich. “Sometimes they are there. Sometimes they are not. The mindset that we have is to be opportunistic. If there is a chance downfield, hit that opportunity and make it work. Give our guys a chance to play the ball in the air and let them be successful. What I’ve grown up in over the last five years is to be completion-driven. That’s what Coach Olson always stresses – be completion-driven, be completion-driven. That’s what the coaches want. At the end of the day, it gives you the next first down and keeps the chains moving. It keeps Josh Bidwell on the sidelines. I always have a completion mindset from the way that I’ve been trained. I’m not going to hold on to the ball so long that I’m looking for things downfield that may not be there when there is a completion right in front of me that might get me eight yards. Holding on to the ball too long waiting for a play downfield can result in sacks. I’ve already learned that lesson from a couple years ago.
“We’re going to be opportunistic. I like that word because if there’s an opportunity there we’re going to take it. We’re going to take our shots. We’ve been taking our shots and we’ve been hitting them, too. The emphasis, in my mind, is to be completion-driven. I think that’s where you move the chains.”
McCown admitted to Pewter Report that his approach is one where his game has naturally evolved into a high-completion style, in addition to using that approach tactically. McCown thought he was pushing the envelope too much last preseason in an effort to beat out Brian Griese for the backup job behind Jeff Garcia.
A case in point was overthrowing a wide-open Michael Clayton in the end zone on third-and-8 from the Miami 18-yard line against the Dolphins in the 2008 preseason opener. McCown could have checked the ball down and picked up the first down to keep the drive going, but missed the throw and Tampa Bay had to settle for a field goal attempt, which Matt Bryant missed wide right.
On the next series, Griese came in and efficiently and methodically marched the Bucs down the field in an impressive, albeit exhausting 19-play, 82-yard touchdown drive that consumed nearly the final seven minutes before halftime. Griese was 10-of-14 for only 59 yards, but the drive ended with a 3-yard slant pass to Brian Clark for a touchdown with six seconds left to give Tampa Bay a 7-3 lead at halftime. Griese’s longest pass on the drive was a 14-yarder to Maurice Stovall and only two of his 10 completions went at least 10 yards.
It wasn’t exciting, but that drive got the job done on several fronts for Griese, and McCown took note. Griese led an efficient, ball-control offense down the field and produced a touchdown. When McCown went for the big play, not only did he not get a touchdown, the team did not even get a field goal at the end of his promising drive.
The biggest end result was that Griese won the back-up job due to plays like this, and that played a big role in Week 2 when Garcia was benched and Griese became the starter. Had McCown performed that way in the preseason and been given the first crack at starting when Garcia was benched, who knows how the fortunes of McCown, Gruden and others would have changed during the 2008 season – for better or worse.
Jagodzinski has already gone on record as saying that style points don’t matter. A good win is having one more point than the other team. McCown is taking him at his word on that.
Leftwich has more of a gunslinger’s approach when it comes to playing football. He’s more aggressive with his downfield throws, but runs the risk of taking more sacks waiting for plays to develop, or tossing interceptions by throwing into coverage instead of being more cautious with the football and checking the ball down. It’s a fine line between being fearless and being careless that he has to walk with his playing style.
“I’ve walked it before,” Leftwich said. “I’m very fearless. Sometimes it might get me in trouble, but I think my percentage is going to come out at the end. You’ve got to take chances down there. The field is so condensed. Most of the time, it’s going to be bang-bang. He’s going to catch it, and he’s going to get hit. There’s going to be a little window and you’re going to have to fit the ball in there. That’s part of playing the quarterback position. You’ve got to understand where you are and who you’ve got on the field. You’ve got to put the ball in the right spot for these guys to make plays. We’ve got playmakers on this team. It’s not easy, but it’s not hard either when you’ve got the type of guys we’ve got.
“I just try to go out there every day and put the ball in the end zone. We did a good job of that (on Wednesday) and we’re just out there working. Guys are getting open and they’re making it easy on me. I’m putting the ball on them. That’s what we’ve got to do to be a good football team in this league. You’ve got to be great in the red zone. You’ve got to score touchdowns and not field goals. That responsibility comes on the quarterback and I take that responsibility.”
McCown’s approach follows the first rule of football – don’t beat yourself with turnovers and negative plays like sacks. Leftwich’s approach follows a basic football premise – touchdowns win games, not field goals. Neither philosophy is wrong.
So with two different mindsets towards the game of football, how will the Buccaneers decision-makers know which quarterback to choose if Leftwich throws five touchdowns and two interceptions in the preseason and McCown throws three touchdowns, one pick and he leads Tampa Bay to score a rushing touchdown? Pewter Report has talked with members of the Bucs’ brass about this quarterback quandary.
First, this situation is not unique. San Francisco had two dramatically different quarterbacks in Joe Montana and Steve Young over a decade ago. Both were Hall of Famers that operated within the West Coast offense in different ways with Montana staying in the pocket and getting rid of the ball quickly and efficiently and Young hitting more plays downfield with his arm and picking up yardage by scrambling.
No, the Bucs’ quarterback situation isn’t that talented, but Jeff Jagodzinski’s offense can operate with either quarterback’s playing style. Yes, Jagodzinski wants to take more shots downfield and stretch defenses with a vertical passing game, but he also likes mobile quarterbacks that can scramble and makes plays with their arm or feet off bootlegs.
Sources tell Pewter Report that while the players are being evaluated in each training camp practice, the preseason games, specifically the first two, will largely determine which quarterback will start the season against Dallas. One thing is for certain. It will not be Josh Freeman, who has thrown too many interceptions and not made enough plays to be in consideration to start right away. Freeman’s reps with the starters has been diminished since Monday – not increased, which means the starting job is a two-man race between McCown and Leftwich.
McCown and Leftwich won’t necessarily be competing with each other. Instead, they will be competing against themselves in the preseason because of their differing styles of play.
If McCown is a player that moves the chains with a high completion percentage and uses his mobility to rush for 35 yards per game and pick up first downs with his feet, then he better show off those traits in the preseason and be display that type of quarterbacking.
The Bucs don’t want to see McCown completing 56 percent of his passes. He needs to complete 65 percent of his passes. If he’s not going to throw as many touchdowns, he better not throw many picks. If he’s going to scramble and keep plays alive with his mobility, he better not take sacks.
If Leftwich is the strong-armed quarterback that will push the ball down the field and throw touchdown bombs, that’s what Tampa Bay’s decision-makers want to see. They better see him thread the needle in the red zone and put touchdowns on the board.
What the Bucs don’t want to see from Leftwich is taking reckless shots downfield with interceptions or incompletions resulting from those throws that mean the loss of possession or three-and-outs. Tampa Bay doesn’t want to see Leftwich hanging in the pocket too long, waiting for the big play downfield if it will result in too many sacks, either.
To put it succinctly, whichever quarterback plays up to their own potential and traits will likely see the field as the starter against Dallas on September 13.
"Once we get to the games, you're really going to know where Luke is. You'll really feel where Byron is. And those guys are really starting to compete. Those two have ascended to the fight. The young guys got an opportunity [on Friday]. They fought into it, and I'm just fired up. But Luke is really doing well.
"Byron has had his up and down days. The thing that makes Byron really good is he can be having a bad practice but can spin one out there and you just go, 'Whoosh, that was a good practice.' You can get a misconception from that, and that's okay because that can be a game. He could be having a bad game and he could spin one down there, throw a 60-yard bomb and you say, 'Wow, Byron played his butt off today.' … I think those guys are playing really well right now and I don't think I can really judge either one of them until we put some pads on them and let them go get hit."
McCown is slated to start the first preseason game this Saturday at Tennessee and Leftwich is expected to start the second one at Jacksonville, which is his former team.
What if both quarterbacks do just that in the preseason and prove to be more than capable starters – as Montana and Young did in the past with the 49ers – and the Bucs go 4-0 as a result? Well that’s a problem this quarterback-starved franchise eagerly welcomes, but unfortunately does not anticipate.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com