TAMPA — Byron Leftwich walked to the line of scrimmage during a red zone drill one day last week and surveyed the defense.
Barking out the cadence, he took a short drop, looked quickly to his left and launched a perfectly thrown spiral to the left corner of the end zone, where Kelly Campbell made the catch while sliding past the pylon for a touchdown.
It was just another play in the middle of summer that is duplicated throughout 32 NFL cities every day.
But the Bucs' offensive players and coaches erupted, chest-bumping Leftwich, Campbell and coach Raheem Morris. At any minute, you expected to see confetti, a podium and the Lombardi Trophy.
No game was won or lost. But you definitely got the feeling Leftwich is going to make a serious challenge for the starting quarterback job against Luke McCown.
"It's just like a basketball player," Morris said. "Any time you hit that first 3, the rest of your practice can go pretty well. Byron had a good day. But Luke has had his days here, too."
During the practice, both McCown and Leftwich made their share of plays. Each fired touchdowns to tight end Jerramy Stevens. McCown hit tight end Kellen Winslow on a 30-yard fade route over safety Sabby Piscitelli in man-to-man coverage.
Leftwich even connected with Dexter Jackson for a leaping reception, threading the ball between two defenders.
"We're charting it. We're looking at it, and it's tight. It's exactly what we said we wanted," Morris said. "We wanted competition, and we've got it. If they're going to (create) tough decisions for us, that's great. I don't want anybody to give it to them. I don't want anybody to win by default.
"I want it to be a guy where we all jump on his back and say, 'That's our guy. Let's go with him.' "
So what will decide it?
Obviously, performance in practice and the first two preseason games. Leftwich, 29, owns a huge advantage in terms of experience with 49 career starts. He played well in five games with the Super Bowl champion Steelers last season, completing 21 of 36 passes for 303 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 104.3 rating. He also rushed for a touchdown.
McCown, 27, has played in just 12 games over five seasons, going 1-6 as a starter with four starts coming during his rookie season in Cleveland.
Last season, he attempted one pass during brief appearances in two games.
What Leftwich has to overcome is his lack of mobility, which prompted the Jaguars to replace him as the starter with David Garrard just before the start of the 2007 season. Playing behind a solid line with a run-first offense could help that.
What McCown has to overcome is his relative lack of game experience. He can't match Leftwich's resume, so he has to be more consistent, eliminate mistakes and make more plays.
I think what decides it is belief. Which quarterback does the team respond to?
Leftwich might have an advantage in the huddle and locker room. McCown needs to improve his assertiveness, and he knows it. When you're following somebody out of the woods, you tend to walk behind the guy who doesn't need to look at his compass.
It's just a feeling you get when you see how the team responds to Leftwich. But it's May.
And let's be clear about this: All three quarterbacks, including first-round draft pick Josh Freeman, will play this season. The starter in Week 1 could be replaced by the bye (Week 8). The backup will likely give way to Freeman.
"All anybody can ask for on this football team is that if I go out here and I play well and if I'm playing better than anybody else, will I have the opportunity to be the guy," Leftwich said. "The toughest thing in the world is being in a situation where no matter what you do, you know you won't have a chance to get out on the field."
The battle to start is between McCown and Leftwich. Second-year pro Josh Johnson will get a shot, too. But barring an injury, the selection of Freeman hurts his chances.
"All I know is that it's a nice fight," Morris said.
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org