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Byron Leftwich looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.
Within minutes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers leaving the field Sunday after getting pummeled by the San Francisco 49ers, Leftwich was quickly striding from the Bucs locker room to the team bus for the return flight to Florida.
If he took a shower, it was brief, at best. He moved as if he was a man escaping the stench of defeat.
It wasn’t only the aftermath of a 35-7 loss in which the Tampa Bay offense was once again putrid because of their inability to protect Tom Brady. For Byron Leftwich, who NFL insiders have admired since before he was even an NFL quarterback, you wonder if he’s trying to run from a bad decision.
Leftwich could have been the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars right now, leading a team with blossoming quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Instead, he’s overseeing a team loaded with injury problems. He is facing the fact that his 45-year-old quarterback might be retiring or going elsewhere at the end of the season.
Byron Leftwich is Not in a Position of Strength
Leftwich is part of a 6-7 team that is literally trying to limp into the playoffs. Worse, Leftwich could unfairly take the blame for this season and dampen his candidacy for a head coaching position.
“I know Byron and I know how good he is,” said an NFC general manager who has known Leftwich for more than 15 years. “But becoming a head coach is about momentum. Are you in the playoffs? Are you leading one of the best offenses or defenses in the league? I can hear the conversations now with a lot of owners. ‘They have Tom Brady and good receivers, and they have a losing record? How do I hire that guy?’
“If Byron had to do it all over again, he should have taken the Jacksonville job, even with (General Manager Trent) Baalke. The way things are setting up, I think Jacksonville is going to dominate that division (the AFC South) for at least the next three to five years … he could have worked around Baalke.”
The word around the league is that Leftwich turned down the job because the Jaguars wanted to keep Baalke. Worse, there is a growing perception that Leftwich is merely riding the coattails of Brady and didn’t accomplish this on his own. That obviously ignores the fact that most coaching candidates get hired after coaching great players. But it’s a reality that Leftwich may have to face.
Byron a Coaching Candidate Early as a Draft Choice
It is a notion that goes against the reputation Leftwich built up with many assistant coaches and other observers who know him well. That dates to 2003, when Leftwich was coming out of Marshall and was the No. 7 overall pick.
At the time, Leftwich was coveted not just by Jacksonville, which drafted him, but by Baltimore. The Ravens famously were trying to move up from No. 10 to No. 7 to get one spot ahead of Jacksonville. The Ravens were negotiating with Minnesota. But they couldn’t get the trade reported to the league before the clock ran out on the pick. The result was a major embarrassment for the Vikings and a major frustration for the Ravens, who had been blown away by Leftwich in pre-draft meetings.
“When Byron got up on the board, he went through everything that Marshall did on offense and explained the philosophy of what they were trying to do,” said a former Ravens assistant coach. “The organization just loved (Leftwich). Then it fell through, and they ended up with Terrell Suggs. Which was great, but they took Kyle Boller with the next pick to be the quarterback and that just didn’t work.”
Can Byron Leftwich Still Get a Head Coaching Job?
The upshot is this: Leftwich may be one of the strongest head coaching candidates in the NFL to those who really know about coaching. Beyond that, he might be one of the best minority coaching candidates, as well.
But has this injury-ravaged season in which the Bucs are playing a makeshift offensive line going to hinder him from getting another chance this year?
“When people call me about him, I push him and tell them all about him,” the NFC GM said. “But I haven’t gotten any calls this year. That’s all I can tell you.”