JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) -When Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio turned his offense over to David Garrard a week before the season opener, he expected the longtime backup to step up.
He never envisioned this, though.
Garrard has a higher passer rating than Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning. It's not even close, either.
Garrard has given the Jaguars (8-3) something few NFL teams enjoy: ``clarity'' at the quarterback position.
No questions. No controversies. Not even the slightest hint of a concern.
``I'm very pleased to see where he is now and have the idea that he's going to continue to get better,'' Del Rio said Wednesday. ``I really believe that. I think he'll continue to improve as a quarterback and as a leader of this team.''
Garrard already has made huge strides.
He ranks fourth in the NFL in passer rating, trailing only Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo. Garrard is even better than Brady on third down, completing 72 percent of his passes for 538 yards, six touchdowns and an NFL-best 127.6 rating.
``There's a difference in knowing that you've got a key position here and in knowing that this is your team. This is David's team,'' receiver Ernest Wilford said. ``He's stepped up to the challenge and he's come up big in big situations. He's gained confidence, he's become more mature and he's become a big-time leader.''
Garrard, 6-2 as a starter this season, has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,626 yards, with nine touchdowns and no interceptions.
Although his statistics aren't gaudy, they include exactly what the ball-control, defensive-minded Jaguars want from their quarterback: few turnovers. Garrard has just one all season, a fumble following a sack in Week 2.
Garrard has thrown 209 times without turning it over.
Miami's John Beck (two starts) and Tennessee's Kerry Collins (one start) are the only other starters in the league without an interception.
``I've been lucky,'' said Garrard, who missed three games because of a sprained left ankle. ``But there's been a couple of games where there wasn't any chance of having any interceptions.''
Those games are becoming more common for the sixth-year pro who broke several passing records at East Carolina before Jacksonville drafted him in the fourth round in 2002.
Garrard was supposed to be the team's quarterback of the future, waiting his turn while learning from Mark Brunell. But Garrard's path took a turn when first-year coach Del Rio chose Byron Leftwich with the seventh overall pick in 2003.
Garrard spent the next four years in and out of the starting lineup, filling in for Leftwich and playing well at times, but never doing enough to supplant him.
Garrard, however, improved significantly this summer - Del Rio compared him to a fastball pitcher who learned he could be more accurate by taking a little bit off - and it really showed in training camp and the preseason.
He outplayed Leftwich, prompting Del Rio to make the surprising move to release his four-year starter and go with Garrard.
It was a bold move, especially since it left the Jaguars with just one experienced QB, but it has turned out to be one of Del Rio's defining decisions.
Garrard has Jacksonville in the postseason picture. And with a victory Sunday at Indianapolis (9-2), the Jags would be tied with the Colts for the lead in the AFC South.
``David has taken a step as a young quarterback and has shown that he can lead this football team,'' Del Rio said. ``The guys are gaining confidence in him, he's gaining confidence in himself and that's good for our football team to have the clarity that we have. ... David is our man.''
And he's been more efficient than Manning, who has 19 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and an 89.4 passer rating. Garrard is even hearing talk about possibly making it to the Pro Bowl.
``It's pretty cool,'' Garrard said. ``All of that can go right by the wayside if you start losing ballgames and they add up and you miss the playoffs.
``I'd like to hear somebody continue talking about the Pro Bowl. It's cool, but I can't worry about that stuff. I can't dwell on it. I can only enjoy the moment, enjoy the fact that I'm playing well enough that they are talking about me like that.''

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