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Saturday, August 29, 2009
Leftwich to start at quarterback

Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' extended quarterback derby is over. Byron Leftwich will start the regular-season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris selected the seventh-year pro over Luke McCown on Saturday, saying Leftwich held an edge going into training camp and retained it with steady -- if unspectacular -- play through three preseason games.

"I'm very excited. When I get home I'll probably scream and let all my emotions out," said Leftwich, who's with his third NFL club since being unceremoniously dumped as the Jacksonville Jaguars' starter two summers ago.

"To work my tail off to get back to this point again -- to be a starter Week 1 -- is what I wanted, and I'm going to take full advantage of it," he said.

Morris had hoped to decide between Leftwich and McCown, a career backup, before the third preseason game.

The first-year coach extended the competition after McCown closed the gap with a stronger performance in the second game. Although neither quarterback sparkled in Thursday's 10-6 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Leftwich did enough to win the job.

"We're going to run the ball. We want to be a heavy play-action team. That kind of fits the mold of what he does -- play action, throwing the ball down the field, trying to generate big plays," Morris said. "That's what he showed he can do in the preseason. ... That's what he's shown in the offseason -- having a big-time arm to throw it down the field consistently."

A first-round draft pick by the Jaguars in 2003, Leftwich is 24-22 as a starter. He started two games in Atlanta after being released by Jacksonville late in training camp two years ago before winning a Super Bowl ring as Ben Roethlisberger's backup in Pittsburgh last season.

The oft-injured Leftwich, who's thrown for 9,624 yards and 54 touchdowns in six pro seasons, never gave up hope on becoming a starter again.

He signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent in April and immediately established a strong presence in the locker room, as well as on the practice field.

"I've been a quarterback my whole life. I think I understand what it takes to play the quarterback position. I think I understand the game well enough to always give my team a chance to win games," Leftwich said.

"Every leader has got to be able to make plays. That's what it ultimately comes down to. I believe those guys saw me make enough plays in the games, and throughout OTAs and training camp, that they respect and believe I can get the job done," he said.

McCown, 1-6 as a starter in five seasons with the Cleveland Browns and Buccaneers, felt he had the best training camp of his career. Though disappointed with the decision, he pledged to do everything he can as a backup to help Leftwich be successful.

"That's the role I'm asked to play right now," McCown said. "I don't have to agree with it. But for as long as I'll be a Buccaneer, I'm going to do everything I can to help this organization win. That's my focus."

There has been speculation the loser of the race might be traded. McCown made it clear his wish is to remain with the Bucs, who are grooming first-round draft pick Josh Freeman as the quarterback of the future.

Morris likes second-year pro Josh Johnson, too, and raised the possibility Saturday of carrying four quarterbacks into the regular season.

"I'm going to keep the best players on this team," he said. "I've been saying that from the beginning. I'm going to keep the best 53.

"Josh Johnson's showed a lot savvy, a lot of poise. If Freeman is going to be your leader of this football team, you want to have a young guy like Josh around. ... Is he one of my best 53? Probably," he said.

Morris said the starter's selection was based on the body of work Leftwich compiled beginning with offseason workouts, rather than anything McCown didn't do. He insisted he would have been comfortable with either player winding up No. 1.

"We saw an aggressive Luke McCown throughout this camp," Morris said. "The guys used to pick with him all the time, called him 'Checkdown McCown.' And he wasn't that. He was far from that. He was a competitor. He took calculated chances and he had some success doing that."

The coach shrugged off a question about how committed he might be to Leftwich, considering the close competition for the starting job and the fact that Freeman is waiting in the wings, too.

"I'm not going to sit here and talk about failure with a man we just picked today," Morris said. "I've got to give him a chance. I've got to believe in him."