TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa Bay’s 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 Jacksonville’s starter two summers ago.

“To
work my tail off to get back to this point again — to be a starter week
one — is what I wanted, and I’m going to take full advantage of it.”

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 Miami, 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, then won 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.”

McCown,
1-6 as a starter in five seasons with Cleveland and Tampa Bay, 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.”

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.”


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