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BATTERED, NOT BROKEN

Quarterback Byron Leftwich's willingness to absorb punishment moves his teammates and the Bucs offense.

Cowboys defensive lineman Marcus Spears had just finished participating in a pummeling of Bucs quarterback Byron Leftwich when he decided to interrupt his postgame celebration to call his best friend.

"I wasn't even out of the locker room and Marcus called me after the game," Tampa Bay receiver Michael Clayton said. "He said, 'Man, Byron Leftwich, I've got a lot of respect for that guy.'"

Spears was reacting to Leftwich's ability and willingness to hang in the pocket despite a fierce pass rush that also features 2008 NFL sack leader DeMarcus Ware.

Leftwich did so at the cost of taking some bumps and bruises, but it paid off in some big completions in Sunday's loss. Some were completions that might not have occurred without a quarterback with the savvy and pocket presence to overcome his obvious limitations - an extremely unorthodox release and, at 6 feet 5, 250 pounds, a lack of mobility. Leftwich, 29, absorbed nine hits in completing 25 of 41 passes for 276 yards, according to official game stats. But he was not sacked, a testament to his ability to know when to say when.

It's part of the reason the Bucs moved the ball against Dallas, finishing with 450 total yards. Some of the biggest passing plays were a direct result of Leftwich waiting for a receiver to get open and delivering the ball just in the nick of time. There are things Leftwich does not do well. But he knows his strengths.

"I was born slow," Leftwich cracked Wednesday. "So, I don't really have a choice. I'm not a guy who runs around in the pocket. I understand what I can do out there on the football field. I'm the guy who has to get the ball in the right guy's hands."

After watching Leftwich "scramble" across the width of the field for a 1-yard gain just before halftime, Clayton was practically stunned.

"When he rolled out and made it to the sideline, I said, 'I ain't never seen you move that fast!'" Clayton said. "His weapon is his arm. He utilizes it in a way that I've never seen a quarterback do. You want that (from) a quarterback, somebody who's going to stand in there and deliver the football."

Because venturing outside the pocket takes Leftwich out of his element, he has made a home there, even if doing so means getting up slowly, as he did on several occasions Sunday.

But playing this way requires the ability to sense the pass rush closing in, especially because Leftwich's delivery includes a windup that leaves the ball exposed. He lives dangerously, but Leftwich proves a quarterback can be effective under such circumstances.

He could not, however, be successful without his toughness.

"Waiting until that last second could be the difference between winning the game and losing the game or completing a pass and throwing an interception," Bucs guard Davin Joseph said. "He's not out there taking unnecessary hits. Every time you see him take a hit, it's worth something.

"And he takes it, and he does not complain. Some quarterbacks don't like to get hit. But he understands that every protection has its weakness and not every blitz can be picked up. He's just tough, man."

Still, a quarterback can only take so much punishment, and the Bucs have lost veteran center Jeff Faine to a triceps strain for 4-6 weeks.

"I have to say, yes, you'd like to get out of the game where the quarterback's jersey is clean every time," coach Raheem Morris said. "But we know the reality. ...

"Any quarterback who gets hit a number of times week to week, depending on how the hits are, it's going to take its toll and wear you down."

Offensive coordinator Greg Olson said the Bucs will continue to use some max protection calls when needed. They will go as far as using eight men to protect Leftwich, as they did at times against the Cowboys. Part of the reason it's necessary is teams know Leftwich is susceptible to pressure because he's likely to stay in the pocket.

"Believe me. I know what teams try against me," he said. "When (defenses) bring pressure, I know what I have to do, what I can't do, what I can get away with and what I can't get away with."

But the price Leftwich may have to pay isn't a consideration for him, evidenced by the sentiments shared by Spears with his buddy Clayton.

"He's a warrior," Clayton said. "Any other quarterback would have tapped out."

Stephen F. Holder can be reachedat sholder@sptimes.com.

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