XLIII Media Day Snap Judgments
Cards brought Matt Leinart to Super Bowl, not other way around
Anquan Boldin's give-and-take with Deion Sanders very telling
Russ Grimm, Mitch Berger, 'Tony' Polamalu and more Super Bowl notes
TAMPA -- You are Matt Leinart, and just as everyone expected almost from day one, you're in the Super Bowl in just your third season with the Arizona Cardinals, the team that selected you in the top 10 of the 2006 NFL Draft.
Except that it was the Cardinals who were nice enough to bring you here, instead of you taking them to the Big Game, which is no small detail when you're a supposed franchise quarterback and the future face of the organization. In fact, I imagine it's a real kick in the ol' Heisman.
I couldn't wait to hang out near Leinart, the former Southern Cal glamour boy turned backup QB, at the Cardinals Super Bowl media day session Tuesday morning. Because what must be going through his mind these days, as the Cardinals bask in their franchise's greatest moment, which only came about this season after he had ceded center stage to veteran quarterback Kurt Warner?
What a strange sight it was to see Leinart just standing amidst the media day hordes on the cramped sideline, no podium or microphone for him, no name placard to tell you who he was. Not far away at all, Arizona punter Ben Graham, who wasn't even on the Cardinals in September, was given his own platform riser, with a name card and a mike. Go figure.
This couldn't be how Leinart dreamed his first Super Bowl trip would unfold. Who would ever imagine this fate?
"No, no, it's sweet,'' said Leinart, fighting off round after round of the inevitable question of whether there's a bittersweet quality to his presence here this week. "Obviously you want to play. But I may have a chance to play on Sunday in this game. There's no bitter feelings. You don't get to this point very often. This is as sweet as it gets. And I think starting in the Super Bowl may be a little sweeter. But I'm happy to be here. This is a great ride.''
Leinart told the truth for the most part. Starting at quarterback in the Super Bowl is a little sweeter, which is why for him, this week isn't as sweet as it gets. At least it better not be. While Warner takes this long, extended late-career bow, polishing his Hall of Fame candidacy in the process, Leinart is the Cardinals forgotten man. The team's past and future leader, who happens to be a little shy on a meaningful present about now.
This season might have been "a great ride'' for the Cardinals, but it has been a humbling one for Leinart. He lost the preseason quarterback competition to Warner, and really hasn't been heard or seen since. I've watched entire Arizona games this year where Leinart didn't even come into camera view.
"Having a lot of success in college, and then getting in the NFL and not having it go the way you planned it is definitely a humbling experience for sure,'' Leinart said. "It's humbled me now, to realize how hard it is to get here and be successful. I know I can be successful and I have a long career ahead of me, but it just takes time. It just hasn't gone according to the plan you always wanted. The game is hard. It's harder than in college. That's why this is the NFL. It's different from college ball.''
I asked Leinart point-blank if the Cardinals would still have wound up in Tampa if he had won Arizona's quarterback derby rather than Warner? He flinched a little, but not much, which tells me he hasn't lost too much confidence just yet.
"I mean, it's so hard to tell, but I do feel I was ready to go out there and play and lead this team,'' he said. "I really believe that. I think just watching Kurt every week -- and obviously I'm not Kurt Warner by any means -- but it's like, 'OK, I can make the reads and I can make the throws.' I do believe I could have been the starter and gotten us to this point. But it didn't work out that way, so I've accepted this role.''
Sitting out a Super Bowl might wind up being just the motivation that Leinart needs to put the rest of his NFL career on the right track. He claims he doesn't burn with any desire to "prove everyone wrong,'' but in the next breath he admits the obvious: "I know a lot of people think I can't play or whatever. I do take that as motivation.
"But this is only my third year and that's why I'm not really sweating anything. I want to play and get my opportunity, and I think it'll come. I've still got a lot of years left, so maybe I'll be back here as a starter. But until then I'm just soaking up this experience and taking it all in, because this doesn't happen every day.''
What, you mean the Arizona Cardinals making the Super Bowl? Who could dare argue with Leinart on that one?
Leinart had a video camera in his left hand every time I saw him on media day. I kept wanting to ask him if his ultimate goal this week was to make sure he doesn't star in anyone's video or photos on the internet, but I couldn't quite bring myself to be that snarky.
Ah, Super Bowl media day, when I get to hear the Access Hollywood reporter -- in the screamingly bright green sun dress -- ask Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald who has the better hair, him or Steelers safety "Tony'' Polamalu?
She actually pronounced Polamalu correctly, but blew the Troy part. So much for homework.
Putting Boldin on the spot, Deion asked him how he would handle it this week if he wasn't on the field on a third-and-6 with the game on the line?
"Third and six?'' asked Boldin. "And I'm on the sideline? In this game? I don't think that's going to happen.''
For the record, Boldin admitted that his hissy fit was about him wanting to be in the game. "I think any competitor would have wanted to be,'' Boldin said. "That was the only thing I was thinking of.''
Exactly our point. We rest our case.
Remember when the Steelers were in the market for a new head coach two years ago and there was a report in a Pittsburgh area paper that then-Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm had been offered the job? I had never heard Grimm address the validity or non-validity of that story until Tuesday, when I asked him if it was his understanding he had been offered anything by the Rooney family before they hired Mike Tomlin?
"When you see things on the news, I've been around this game long enough to know sometimes a story breaks early, and sometimes it's not the right story,'' said Grimm, who is now the Cardinals assistant head coach/offensive line coach. "I had not heard from the Rooneys. It was one of those things. People try to make a bigger deal about it, but that's what the business is. I made a run at the head coaching job, a decision was made and I wished them the best of luck and moved on. Some people wanted to make it sound like it was either me or Ken [Whisenhunt], but you never know in a situation like that.''
Let me get this straight: Because he was such a huge part of the success of the Colts program before Indy finally won a Super Bowl ring two years ago, Colts owner Jim Irsay was nice enough to send Cardinals running back Edgerrin James one of those rings, even though James left the team for Arizona the year before?
And on Tuesday, when I asked James if he was worried that he had missed his best chance at a Super Bowl when the Colts went the year after he signed with the Cardinals, he actually demurred, citing his role with the 2006 Colts.
"I didn't worry, because I feel like I was part of that team,'' James said of the Super Bowl champion Colts. "With everything that happened, all year long. There was nothing I wasn't aware of.''
Wow. Now that's some power of self-persuasion.
Later in the day, James was asked if he likes being the underdog in this year's Super Bowl.
"It doesn't matter,'' he said. "I'm an African American. I'm always the underdog.''
African-American players make up almost 70 percent of the rosters in the NFL, so I'm not sure the underdog role in this case is that cut and dried, Edge.
Steelers punter Mitch Berger is the best kind of Super Bowl story in my book, just like Giants veteran Jeff Feagles punter was last year. I've got a soft spot in my heart for the guys who have been around forever, and finally get a trip to the NFL's biggest stage.
Berger has belonged to 10 different teams -- including the Cardinals and Steelers -- since being drafted by the Eagles out of Colorado in 1994. And he has finally made it to the Super Bowl, despite not even starting this year's training camp with a job.
I covered Berger when he was with the Vikings in the late 1990s, and he was on that 1998 team that went 15-1 but then lost the NFC title game at home to Atlanta in overtime, missing the Super Bowl by the most agonizing of margins. Catching up with him Tuesday was a chance to hear a veteran's perspective born out of years spent waiting for this week.
"In 1998, when we were 15-1, it didn't even cross my mind that we wouldn't go to the Super Bowl,'' Berger said. "I don't think it crossed anyone's mind that we wouldn't go that year. I thought that was my last good chance. That was an amazing team. I thought we'd win for sure, and I think everyone did. You think you'll have more chances, but what is it like, five teams later, maybe six or seven cuts later, with a couple knee surgeries and a groin surgery thrown in?''
Berger said he has tried to tell some of his younger teammates how special, how rare this all is. But they only appreciate and realize just so much.
"You look at some of the young guys, they're in their first year and it's like, 'Wow, this is great.' I know they're enjoying it, but I think maybe they don't really know how special it is and how long you can wait. I think of so many guys on that Vikings team that never got the chance to go after we lost in 1998. I still can't believe I'm getting to go after all these years.''
For anyone under the age of 40, the Steelers have always been one of the great success stories in the NFL, making playoff trip after playoff trip from 1972 on. But team president Art Rooney II is just old enough to remember the bad old days, when the Steelers were a punchline, and one of the league's perennial losers, just like the Cardinals were for decades.
Rooney, now 56, became a Steelers ball boy in 1966. His family owned the team 41 seasons before it won its first Super Bowl crown. On Sunday, Pittsburgh goes for its record sixth.
"It was rough. When I was growing up, I hated Sundays,'' Rooney said. "Because it usually meant we would lose, and I had school the next day. It was a rough day.''
Hines Ward has a chance Sunday to do what no receiver has ever done: Win a second Super Bowl MVP award. I honestly didn't realize that was a feat still waiting to be recorded.
"It'd be a great accomplishment to be the only receiver to win two MVPs, but I don't play this game to try and win that award,'' said Ward, the MVP of Super Bowl XL, three years ago in Detroit. "I just want to win another Super Bowl.''
Actually, Ward admitted he's thinking a bit more about his NFL legacy these days.
"Some guys might like me, some guys call me dirty,'' he said. "Maybe some kids out there want to be me some day, I don't know. But when I leave this game one day, all I want people to say is 'He was one hell of a football player.' That's all I can really ask for.''
I don't think Ward has much to worry about on that front.
The NFL can be a very cold business. Ask Cardinals punter Ben Graham. He was with the Jets to start this season, and the day after New York demolished the Cardinals in Week 4 in the Meadowlands, Graham was getting ready to take part in the Jets 2008 team picture. But not so fast, Ben.
"I was walking toward the locker room to get changed for the team photo and I got a tap on the shoulder,'' Graham said Tuesday. "I went upstairs and was told I was being released. So I actually left the building walking past my teammates getting their photo taken as a team. That was tough.''
Graham was signed by the Cardinals and now here he is in the Super Bowl. No word on whether he made it to Arizona in time for the Cardinals team picture.