TAMPA — Boos cascaded down on Byron Leftwich, the Bucs' 29-year-old hired gunslinger.
He had just missed wide-open tight end Kellen Winslow, one of several poor throws by Leftwich on Thursday night against the Miami Dolphins. Or so it seemed.
What wasn't so obvious is that Winslow was supposed to run a skinny post but bent the route across the middle of the field.
"You had no idea that the receiver ran the wrong route by the body language of the quarterback," coach Raheem Morris said. "That's part of it."
Morris summoned Leftwich and Luke McCown to his office early Saturday to declare a winner in the quarterback derby. "It was almost like you were going to see the principal," Leftwich said.
The coach chose Leftwich, the guy Morris says has "a Magic Johnson smile," to be the starter.
According to Morris, Leftwich outplayed McCown in the offseason and training camp, although neither was particularly consistent in preseason games. In the end, the fact that Leftwich has been through the fire was as important as his ability to throw smoke with his right arm.
"We're going to run the ball. We want to be a heavy play-action team," Morris said. "That kind of fits the mode of what he does, play-action, throwing the ball down the field in chunks, trying to get big plays, trying to generate big plays," Morris said. "That's what he showed he can do in the preseason, and that's what he went out there and did.
"Luke did a great job competing. I think we've seen the most aggressive Luke McCown throughout this camp that we've seen in years. The guys used to pick with him all the time, calling him 'check down McCown,' and he wasn't that. … He took chances and had some success doing it. We just thought Leftwich was the better guy, and we're going with Leftwich right now."
For Leftwich, it's the first time since 2006 he will begin the season as a starting quarterback. He was released by the Jaguars nine days before the start of the 2007 season. After a failed stint in Atlanta, where he suffered an ankle injury, he resurfaced last year as Ben Roethlisberger's backup for the Super Bowl champion Steelers.
"I'm very excited. …" Leftwich said. "When I get home, I'll probably scream in the living room and let all my emotions out. I've been holding them in. To work my tail off to get back to this point again to be a starter on Week 1, that's what I wanted, and I'll take full advantage of it, and I think there will be a lot of good things for the Bucs this year."
McCown, who forfeited free agency to re-sign a two-year, $7.5 million deal with the Bucs, couldn't mask his disappointment after five years of being a bridesmaid in the QB race.
"Yeah, a little bit (surprised) I guess," McCown said. "You have to continue to believe you did everything you were asked to do. I still believe that. But like I've said all along, once they name the starter, it's about whatever is best for this team to win ball games. Byron's the starter. And I'm going to do everything I can to help him be the best starter he can be. And at the same time, prepare and be ready to play if I'm called upon."
Players didn't take sides, but it was obvious from the first time Leftwich walked onto the field in March that his arm and leadership ability was special.
"He's a guy who's been through the fire," receiver Michael Clayton said. "I think that's one of the main components that allowed him to get this job — not to mention his ability to get the ball down the field. He's one of the strongest-armed quarterbacks I've played with."
Leftwich answers questions every day about his long, slow release and plodding feet in the pocket. "To be honest with you, that release is probably not going to change," he said. "It is going to be that way, and I have to do a better job of finding ways to make it work."
McCown will serve as the No. 2 quarterback, and first-round pick Josh Freeman will begin the season No. 3.
Eventually, the job will go to Freeman, the Bucs' proclaimed franchise player.
Leftwich said he will do everything to help develop him. He just doesn't want to give the Bucs a reason to play Freeman this season.
"I'm used to leading a bunch of men, and I actually like being in that position," Leftwich said.
Times staff writers Joe Smith and Dave Scheiber contributed to this report.