On the first day of the 2003 NFL Draft, as the Minnesota Vikings' time with the seventh overall pick was running out, the Jaguars had filled out a draft card and were prepared to go on the clock.
Three, two, one—done. Jacksonville rushed the card up to the podium, skipping ahead of Minnesota for the seventh pick.
The player they were mischievously cutting in line to claim, of course, was Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich. For all their haste, however, Leftwich was hardly the unanimous choice in Jacksonville's war room.
He had the support of James "Shack" Harris, the Jaguars' first-year general manager who had been a Pro Bowl quarterback in the 1970s. Sources close to the team say that Harris saw himself in Leftwich and made the pick against opposition from new head coach Jack Del Rio.
Del Rio, who had transformed the league's worst defense into its second-best during his two years as defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, had his eye on Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs.
Fast-forward to the present—going past three seasons of mediocre passing offense in Jacksonville, Leftwich's release days before the Jaguars' first regular season game in 2007, and 53 sacks and three Pro Bowl appearances by Suggs—and hindsight seems to have validated Del Rio. Paying more for Leftwich than Suggs, as the Jaguars chose to do in 2003, would be laughable now.
Well, suppose Jacksonville hadn't.
Suppose they rushed a draft card up to the podium in that same situation in 2003—Minnesota was supposedly trading the pick to Baltimore—but it had Suggs' name on it. Suppose the Jaguars and Ravens were scrambling for that spot to take Suggs, not Leftwich. Suppose Del Rio had his way.
What would have changed for the Jaguars?
1. David Garrard Gets Put Under the Microscope Three Seasons Earlier
Jacksonville had two quarterbacks already on the roster coming into that draft. One was veteran Mark Brunell, who had been the face of the franchise since he led the Jaguars on an improbable run to the conference championship game in 1996, their second year as a franchise.
The other was a fourth-round developmental prospect from the previous year's draft, a young holdover from the "old regime" of fired head coach Tom Coughlin: David Garrard.
Far from his 2007 form that would earn him a $60 million, six-year commitment from the team, Garrard was an untested 2002 rookie in whom the Jaguars' new management didn't have much invested. As evidenced by their benching of Brunell in the third game of the 2003 season, Harris and Del Rio wanted a new starter at quarterback.
In 2003, Garrard didn't necessarily fit that profile.
Jacksonville decided to draft Leftwich, a top-caliber prospect around whom they hoped to rebuild. Without Leftwich, though, Garrard would have been the only viable alternative to Brunell on the roster.
Presumably, the Jaguars wouldn't have been as anxious to throw Garrard into the thick of things. Leftwich was rushed in to get experience while the roster was built up around him, but Jacksonville could have kept Brunell in as a steady hand during their changing of the guard.
Judging from Brunell's 2004 season with the Redskins, in which he struggled with a nagging hamstring injury and was benched in favor of journeyman backup Patrick Ramsey, Del Rio might've been forced to turn to Garrard.
When Garrard hit that stage in his career in 2006, as a starting-caliber backup, he was an even bet to either run the offense without a hiccup or give away the game—ask Tennessee.
Without the experience he picked up in years of off-season work and spot starts, Garrard might've flopped. The Jaguars would have been unlikely to improve on their record, suffering from the same inconsistent quarterback play. They might have ended up with a higher pick than the ninth overall selection they ended up with in the 2004 draft.
2. The Jaguars' Defense Can Carry the Team Even Further on Its Back
In Del Rio's first five years as head coach, Jacksonville's defense developed from a middle-of-the-pack unit into one of the league's elite. All-Pro tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud made running almost impossible for opponents.
Cornerback Rashean Mathis, the Jaguars' second round pick in 2003, turned into a shutdown cover corner. Safety Donovin Darius and Jacksonville's linebackers prided themselves on hard hits and aggressive play.
For all their physicality, though, the Jaguars never had an elite pass rusher after Tony Brackens struggled with knee injuries coming off an 11-sack season in 2001. They tried to find one, signing Hugh Douglas to a huge free agent contract in 2003, and doing the same for Reggie Hayward in 2005 after Douglas didn't pan out.
Brady had only been hurried once, but the game had still been a close contest. So the Jaguars traded handfuls of draft picks to move up in the draft for Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, thinking they were a pass rusher or two away from the Super Bowl.
With Suggs, none of those gambles need ever have happened. Suggs exploded onto the NFL scene with 12 sacks and an interception as the 2003 Defensive Rookie of the Year, and hasn't slowed down since.
During a down year for the Ravens' defense as a whole in 2007, Suggs tallied only five sacks—which would've made him the Jaguars' second-best pass rusher that year. He bounced back with eight sacks and two picks in 2008, making his third Pro Bowl in six seasons.
Suggs' effectiveness was probably maximized in Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's hybrid defense. In the Ravens' three-man fronts, Ryan would set him up outside of a lineman who'd attack the opposing tackle, leaving Suggs free to rush the passer.
But Suggs had success in Baltimore's four-man front as well, pinning back his ears and rushing the passer from a three-point stance. Lining up next to Henderson and Stroud would have been almost as good as being a pure pass-rusher in Baltimore.
Suppose, then, that Suggs was breathing down Brady's neck during that hard-fought divisional playoff game in 2007. A sack or two would have been helpful, but consistent pressure could have knocked a handful of completions off Brady's 24-of-26 night—particularly his 52-yard fourth quarter bomb to Donte' Stallworth, which set up a field goal that kept the Jaguars at arm's length, 31-20.
Looking past that game, Jacksonville would have faced the hobbled San Diego Chargers, minus LaDainian Tomlinson and with Philip Rivers an immobile target for their pass rush, and a New York Giants defense with All-Pro ends and suspect tackles. They could have dispatched the Chargers with physical play, and their running game would likely have fared well against the Giants in the big game.
Whether Suggs would have pushed the Jaguars over the top to a Lombardi Trophy or not is difficult to say. That it's possible is certain.
Going back further, suppose Suggs had been getting after Peyton Manning in Jacksonville's games against Indianapolis for five years. The Jaguars were one win and a Colts loss away from tying for the division in 2005, and again in 2007.
Three of the four games between the Jaguars and Colts in those seasons were decided by one score or less. Considering the Colts' dependence on the passing game, a threat like Suggs could have made a huge difference.
The Jaguars wouldn't have been a shoo-in for two AFC South titles, but they would've at least had a shot.
3. Jacksonville Doesn't Move Up Aggressively in the 2008 NFL Draft
Outside of the direct impact on Jacksonville from Leftwich's absence and Suggs' presence, a different name on the Jaguars' 2003 draft card would have had a ripple effect in places for the league as a whole.
The Jaguars' trades up for Harvey and Groves were eye-opening moves—particularly their first, third, and fourth-round picks for the pick used to take Harvey. With Suggs in Jacksonville, those moves don't happen.
Staying put at the 26th pick, the Jaguars could have considered Arizona cornerback Antoine Cason to shore up their secondary opposite Rashean Mathis, Clemson defensive end Phillip Merling as a strong side end to develop behind Paul Spicer, or Houston receiver Donnie Avery to add speed to their passing game.
Whichever route they went, Jacksonville would have been free to take the best player available instead of having to address a specific need.
Without the Jaguars as his suitors, Harvey still wouldn't have fallen much further in the draft. Despite the popular opinion that Jacksonville had reached for the former Florida Gator past his draft value, the Cincinnati Bengals had (and still have) a significant need at defensive end.
The Bengals brought in free agent Antwan Odom from Tennessee to replace departed end Justin Smith, but Odom managed just three sacks—which tied for the team lead on a defense that managed just 17 sacks total. With the ninth pick in the draft, they could have added the end with the quickest first step in last year's draft to their pass rush.
4. Byron Leftwich Completes the Swap and Becomes a Baltimore Raven
The Ravens ended up using their second first-round pick (the 19th overall) on California quarterback Kyle Boller, who hadn't been their first choice. At that pick, they would have just missed out on Wake Forest defensive end Calvin Pace, who was considered a similar talent to Suggs but hasn't enjoyed the same level of success.
Whether because of Boller's poor decision-making or Leftwich's slow release and limited mobility, the Ravens would have come out of the 2003 draft with a cannon-armed first round quarterback destined to lose his job twice: first, to veteran free agent Steve McNair, then to 2008 rookie Joe Flacco. With the Jaguars snapping up Suggs, they wouldn't even have the consolation prize of an ace pass rusher.
5. In the Long Run, Things Would Probably Shake Out About the Same
Surprisingly little would be sure to have change if the Jaguars had written "Terrell Suggs" on that draft card. Maybe they would've won an AFC South title or two, or even a Super Bowl. Maybe not.
The games that such success would've hinged on are still too close to call. Maybe they'd have Ben Roethlisberger shrugging off sacks and playing efficient football instead of David Garrard. Either would function similarly within the Jaguars' run-first offense.
Maybe they'd still be chugging along under "Shack" Harris, forestalling their present roster renovation, leaning heavily on an aging defense and a depth-starved offensive line and reaching on receivers.
With a decent pass rush led by Suggs, Jacksonville's weaknesses in the defensive secondary might not have been exposed over the past two seasons. Their injury-plagued offense could have leaned on a stout-but-fading defense for at least another year of mediocrity, delaying the collapse that happened in 2008.
Maybe, in that light, it's best that the Jaguars went after Leftwich and got him.