TAMPA — Say this for Byron Leftwich:
He probably won the starting quarterback job for the Buccaneers on Thursday night.
But he didn't win your confidence. And I doubt if he won your heart.
On a night when his offensive line was stout and his receivers were running free in the secondary, Leftwich played just well enough to earn faint praise. Just well enough to keep Luke McCown wondering where he went wrong.
In the end, you get the sense this is the result Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris wanted. For a rookie head coach, there is comfort in knowing your quarterback has a few scars on his body and a few victories in his past. And so Morris can go into the first regular-season game against Dallas in 16 days with some sense of reliability in the offensive huddle.
But don't assume we've heard the last of this story.
The Bucs can name their starter and declare the competition closed, but the doubts will follow them right into September.
Every three-and-out, every interception will be another opportunity to wonder if a change in QBs is on the horizon.
That's where Leftwich failed against the Dolphins on Thursday. He staked the Bucs to a 6-0 lead in the second quarter, but it should have been much more. Leftwich not only had the opportunity to win this job, but to grab this team and community by the throat. Instead, he missed the target. Repeatedly.
And so now the perception is Leftwich will be playing on an awfully short lease. Which is just how it should be. Even Morris seemed unimpressed afterward and declined to name a starter.
"Obviously, you want somebody to jump up and take it," Morris said. "Did they tonight? We'll have to go to the tape and find out if they did."
Leftwich was like the movie you're not sure you want to recommend. Kind of good in some parts, kind of shaky in others. He hit some nice downfield passes, but he also had enough overthrows to make you wonder about his consistency.
Through three preseason games, Leftwich produced only one touchdown in 12 possessions, and that was on a 24-yard drive in his first series against Tennessee. He's also had four decent-sized drives that produced field goals. Those numbers do not scream juggernaut. I'm not even sure they whisper.
Still, putting aside the stats, Leftwich is the safe pick. He is a proven commodity with a steady hand. On a team that needs direction, Leftwich is the guy who has been down a few roads before.
And that, more than anything we've seen in the preseason, is his greatest argument. Which is sort of like a politician pledging to be honest. It's not much of a rallying cry, but it might be better than the alternative.
Leftwich's history says he can be a winning quarterback if he's surrounded by good enough players. He won 61.3 percent of his starts in his final three years in Jacksonville, which is a pretty fine ratio in the parity-driven NFL. On the other hand, the Jaguars won 58.8 of their games when Leftwich was not in the lineup and that's not much of a dropoff between a starter and his backups.
In other words, Leftwich is a capable quarterback but he is not the type who can carry an offense on his shoulders.
Yet, if all goes according to plan, that won't be necessary. The Bucs have been adamant their plan is to run the ball, control the clock and throw the occasional deep pass. If so, Leftwich can handle that. He's always done a good job of avoiding interceptions, and he's smart enough to know when to take his shots downfield.
That was supposedly his advantage in this quarterback derby, and it seemed to play out that way Thursday night. Even if the deck was slightly stacked against McCown.
By the time McCown got in the game, center Jeff Faine and the starting receivers had already headed to the sideline. Add in a heavy rainstorm, and McCown was facing conditions less ideal than Leftwich had.
Still, McCown did not help his own cause. He threw some of the prettiest passes of the night, but the lasting memory will be his failure to get rid of the ball quickly enough when his protection broke down. McCown was sacked on consecutive plays on his first drive and called for intentional grounding on his second.
For a quarterback competition that went to overtime, the result was neither thrilling nor pleasing.
The more you saw of Leftwich and McCown, the more you wanted to see Josh Freeman.