The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback competition got started during the organized team activities (OTA) on Tuesday. It was the first OTA, and the first organized practice with starting candidates Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich. Also in the competition is first-round pick Josh Freeman, but he is not allowed to participate in OTAs until after his school's graduation. Head coach Raheem Morris, offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson will be making the decision on who will be the Bucs starting quarterback.
Both Leftwich and McCown are happy with the opportunity to earn the starting job, and both players believe that who performs the best will have the position. McCown takes the view that the job is his and he won't let anybody else have it.
"Absolutely, this has been a long time coming for me and I'm not letting anybody take it from me," McCown said. "The first legitimate opportunity, say what you want about three starts at the end of a season, this is my first real opportunity to be the starter, to be the guy, and I look at it as mine, and your going to have to shoot me (laughing)."
Leftwich, 29, considered offers from Washington and Pittsburgh before opting to sign with Tampa Bay, where he will compete with Luke McCown, Josh Freeman, Josh Johnson, and possibly Brian Griese for the starting job. Griese is believed to be a likely candidate to be released or traded before the start of training camp. The 2008 fifth-round pick Johnson is believed to be more likely battling for a roster spot rather than the starting position.
"It is a great opportunity to have a lot of good football players around you," Leftwich said. "As a quarterback that is what you understand that is what you need. You need guys around you that can make football plays, and we all know the weapons that we have here. As a quarterback this is real exciting for me. It is a competition. It is what it is. It is a competition. Everybody wants to be the guy. We understand that there is only going to be one guy. We are just going to work, work, and whoever wins the job is the best man to win."
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Leftwich has completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 9,624 yards and tossed 54 touchdowns and 38 interceptions since entering the league as a first-round draft pick out of Marshall in 2003. Leftwich, who has also rushed for nine touchdowns, began his career with Jacksonville, but has spent the past two seasons with Atlanta and Pittsburgh, respectively. He has started a total of 46 games during his NFL career.
"That is all you can ask for as a player in this league, or anybody on this football team," said Leftwich. "If I go out here and I play well and I'm playing better than anybody else will I have the opportunity to be the guy. Once I realized I had that opportunity especially with the guys that they had here you got to jump on it. That is what any player in this league wants. Am I going to have a chance to compete? The toughest thing in the world is to be in the situation that no matter you do you won't be in a situation to get out on the field. It is a true competition, so I jumped on it."
McCown, 27, joined Tampa Bay in 2005 when the Bucs traded a sixth-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for his services. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound McCown has completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 1,617 yards and tossed nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions during his five-year career. He has also rushed 21 times for 157 yards (7.5 avg.). McCown owns a 1-6 record as a starter in the NFL and has a career quarterback rating of 75.2, but he owns a 91 QB rating in seven games (three starts) as a Buccaneer quarterback.
McCown opened some eyes in the five games he played in place of Jeff Garcia during the 2007 regular season. McCown completed 94-of-139 (67.6 percent) of his passes for 1,009 yards and threw five touchdowns and three interceptions. The veteran McCown was asked if he has been voicing his potential to be the Bucs franchise quarterback over this time in Tampa Bay.
"Yeah I've been saying that for a few years," said McCown. "Nobody knew what New England had in Matt Cassel. You just don't know until you get out there and play, not just three games, you have to play eight, 10, 12 games in a row. To get that experience, to get that confidence, that respect to be able to be vocal and be a leader. You have to earn things in this league. You just don't earn them two or three good games. You get a little bit of credit. You have to do it a full year. Experience-wise, leadership-wise, this an opportunity for me to do that."
The two-year contract McCown signed, which was negotiated by general manager Mark Dominik, is worth $7.5 million. McCown received a $2.5 million signing bonus and is scheduled to earn $2.5 million in base salary in 2009 and 2010, respectively. McCown has playing time and playoff incentives that could make the deal worth as much as $14 million over two years. Leftwich signed a similar contract with five million in the second year of the contract and $2.5 in the first year of the contract.
The wildcard in the quarterback competition is Freeman (6-6, 250). The first-round pick is viewed as the Bucs future franchise quarterback, but the plan right now appears to be for him to sit and learn behind McCown or Leftwich. If the two veterans are struck by injuries or ineffective play, Freeman could figure into the starting equation.
Last season as a junior Freeman completed 224-of-382 passes for 2,945 yards with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also ran for 14 touchdowns. In his three years in college he started 30 games and had a record of 14-16. For his career, Freeman completed 59 percent of his passes (680 out of 1151) for 8,078 yards and 44 touchdowns with 34 interceptions. He ran for 835 yards and 20 touchdowns averaging 3.9 yards per carry. The drafting of Freeman did not bother either the veteran quarterbacks.
"I wasn't surprised by it at all. What I love about Raheem is he shoots you straight he is going to tell you what is going on," McCown said. "When I signed my contract, when I re-signed that was the first thing that he said to me. He brought me up into his office showed me his board and said this what the depth chart looks like. This is the competition that you are going to be in. We got the 19th pick, at that time, all the experts say we are going to draft one, who knows if we do. All we can do is go out and compete. The worst-case scenario is you perform well and we have to make a decision whether to keep you or trade you. You can't do anything but respect him for that, so I anticipated that pick. We'll go from there. From what I know, and have met Josh, I've been around him just a little bit. He's a great kid a hard working guy and I'm going to do everything I can help his career."
Leftwich took a similar tone as his teammate when he was asked if he knew if the Bucs were going to take a quarterback with their first-round pick.
"Before or after the smokescreen comment," Leftwich joked. "I know that is a good nickname (Mr. Smokescreen). I knew it was a possibility. As a quarterback all you can ask for is that if I'm the best quarterback on the team will I play. I'm pretty sure Luke wants that same opportunity, and Josh. To have that opportunity, it didn't really matter to me. I'm just trying to make the football team better. Like I told him I'm going to help the guy. I was in that situation, and it is not an easy situation coming in as a rookie and playing. It is not as easy as it seems. I think some times you can look at what Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco did last season and think it is easy. It is not easy, you can ask those guys it is not easy. It is possible, but it is not easy, so I'm going to help the guy as much as I can."
Leftwich joked about a comment from Freeman that the rookie said was taken out of context in an interview on draft day. Freeman's comment was along the lines that the Bucs signing of Leftwich was a smokescreen to hide their intentions of drafting the Kansas State product. All three quarterbacks have praised the offensive talent around them on the Bucs' roster. For Leftwich, that was part of his thought process when he decided to sign with Tampa Bay.
"It was crazy at the beginning of free agency. I'm going to be honest with you," said Leftwich. "There were things going on, and we all were really waiting on Kurt Warner. As a quarterback you are sitting, you are all waiting on Kurt, and trying to gage it off that. When the Buccaneers brought me in for a workout they asked me if I wanted to throw and said yeah I'll throw the ball. That is what I do, throw the football. I had no problem coming in here and working out. After that they liked the workout. I'm here now. Just to have an opportunity I'm telling you. I'm going on my seventh year. I realize as a quarterback in this league you can't do it by yourself, as a rookie and my second year I thought I could. I'm smarter now. I realize that it takes a lot of different elements for you as a quarterback to go out and play well, and the Buccaneers have all those elements."