Passing judgment: It's too soon to call Leinart's NFL career a bust
Last weekend you might have heard that Matt Leinart stunk it up in the "all-important'' third preseason game, throwing three interceptions in 12 passing attempts against the Raiders and posting a microscopic 2.8 passer rating. Predictably, soon thereafter came the anonymously sourced report he was about to lose his job as the Cardinals starting quarterback. He hasn't yet, but that almost seems besides the point.
Such was Leinart's plight in recent days, and some how, some way, even though we haven't even reached the end of August yet, it has become something of a foregone conclusion his days as the No. 1 in Arizona are indeed numbered. The shorthand has quickly become: Leinart's a failure, and the Cardinals are Kurt Warner's team once again. That judgment made, we moved on to other juicier topics like Michael Strahan's potential un-retirement or whether the four-game preseason has finally out-lived its usefulness.
But hold on just a minute. How exactly did things reach such a crossroads so suddenly for Leinart, the draft's 10th overall pick just two years ago? How is it there's this rush to label his era in Arizona almost ended before it has even begun? And yes, almost before it has even begun is entirely apt. Here are a few reminders that might surprise you in the case of Leinart's still-nascent Cardinals career:
The former Heisman-winning USC quarterback has started only 16 games in his first two years in the desert, the equivalent of one full regular season. He has missed 12 games due to shoulder injuries -- including last year's broken left collarbone, which ended his season after five starts -- made one relief appearance, and sat the bench for three others.
Leinart, who turned 25 in May, is 7-9 as a Cardinals starter. That's not a great record by any means, but for a team that has made the playoffs just once (1998) in the past 26 years, it's not too shabby. By comparison, in games Leinart hasn't started the past two years, Arizona is 6-10.
To be sure, Leinart's meltdown against Oakland last Saturday night was hide-the-children's-eyes ugly. But he had passer ratings of 114.1 and 108.9 in the Cardinals' previous two preseason games, with one touchdown pass and nary a turnover. Again, Leinart this year is returning from a major injury to his left shoulder, which is no trivial issue for a guy who makes his living with his left arm.
Lastly, a check of Leinart's career numbers show he is well within the statistical norm for a young quarterback still learning his craft. He has thrown for 3,194 yards in those 16-plus games, with a 56.0 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 71.2 passer rating. As a rookie in 2006, he had 100-plus passer ratings in three of his final six starts, and threw for an NFL rookie-record 405 yards in a November game at Minnesota. But in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL, especially in this age of instant analysis, can anyone even remember back that far?
All in all, it hardly adds up to anything that makes Leinart worthy of a hasty assignment to the scrap heap. While one can rightfully claim the 37-year-old Warner probably gives the Cardinals a better chance of winning games right now, Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt at the least will be keeping Leinart on a very short leash when it comes to the starting role. The quick take that has morphed into conventional wisdom is it was Leinart's job to lose, and he appears to be losing it.
But even if that is the case, and Leinart doesn't wind up starting Week 1 this season, I'm amazed so many seem to have already reached the conclusion he can't possibly end up succeeding in Arizona. What we've seen so far certainly shouldn't relegate him to failure status at the tender age of 25, with just those 16 starts under his belt. That's way too harsh, way too soon, and lacking in anything resembling long-term perspective.
Thinking about Leinart's deteriorating situation this week led me to recall another highly regarded collegiate quarterback from California, who, like Leinart, was drafted in the NFL's top 10 and then struggled for the better part of his first three seasons before finding his stride in the league. Both Leinart, who went 10th in 2006, and Trent Dilfer, selected 6th by Tampa Bay in 1994, were the second quarterbacks taken in their draft classes, behind Tennessee's Vince Young (No. 3) and Washington's Heath Shuler (No. 3), respectively.
I was a Bucs beat writer covering the young Dilfer, who started just two games as a rookie in '94, and then made all 16 of Tampa Bay's starts in 1995. In his first 18 often-ragged NFL starts, Dilfer threw for five touchdowns, 24 interceptions, absorbed 55 sacks, completed 52.7 of his passes for 3,207 yards, and compiled QB abysmal ratings of 36.3 and 60.1 in those two seasons. In other words, his career got off to a considerably worse start than Leinart's, with both passers happening to toil for long downtrodden, non-winning franchises.