Are You Ready for Your Close-Up Mr. Leinart?
The quarterback with the golden arm and the Entourage-like band of buddies owns the spotlight. Now Matt Leinart has to lead the long-suffering Cardinals out of the darkness
Posted: Tuesday July 17, 2007 12:42PM; Updated: Thursday July 26, 2007 11:57AM
The tall pedestrian swooped in suddenly, hustling through the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach a few days before Super Bowl XLI. "Dude, you might want to roll up your window," Brian Panique told his childhood friend and now roommate, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart, who was fiddling with his BlackBerry in the backseat of a Cadillac Escalade. Leinart, already annoyed by the gridlock, hit the power-window button and rolled his eyes at the thought of having to deal with another amped-up autograph seeker.
The man, who had spotted Leinart from the sidewalk, lingered beside the SUV for a couple of seconds before it dawned on Panique that he might have given his buddy some bad advice. "Uh, Matt," he said, gesturing toward the pedestrian. "I think that's your coach."
Down went the window, and out went Leinart's hand and an awkward but enthusiastic "great to meet you!" That was how newly hired Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was welcomed into Leinart's world, the closest thing to a real-life version of Entourage the NFL has to offer. Like the HBO series' main character, actor Vincent Chase, Leinart, 24, is a generous, genial star who copes with celebrity by surrounding himself with trusted friends and deftly blurring the line between business and pleasure.
Unlike Chase's, however, Leinart's career arc is as robust as one of his sublime seam passes. On July 27, when the Cardinals report to training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., Leinart begins the transition from promising rookie to, potentially, the savior of pro football's longest-foundering franchise. Last season, even as Arizona wheezed to a 5-11 record, Leinart showed flashes of excellence in 12 games, completing 56.8% of his passes for 2,547 yards, including an NFL-rookie record 405 in a Nov. 26 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. He won only four of 11 starts after taking over for Kurt Warner, but of greater importance he captured the locker room. "Matt has a one-on-one relationship with everyone on the team," running back Edgerrin James says. "He has a chance to be special because guys will go the extra mile for him."
With the poise of a tested veteran, the courage to take chances downfield and an uncanny ability to exploit gaps in coverage -- in Whisenhunt's words, "anticipating windows with the touch and depth perception to put the ball in the perfect spot" -- the 6' 5" lefty has already made an impression on opposing defenders. "He did a great job last year, and I'm sure he'll get even better," says Brian Urlacher, the Chicago Bears' All-Pro middle linebacker. "We all know he's calm back there, and if they can find a way to protect him, look out."