After Warner's heroics, Leinart's career deserves fresh perspective
Matt Leinart shouldn't be dinged for losing 2008 camp battle with Kurt Warner
Leinart could learn from careers of draft classmates, Jay Cutler and Vince Young
Don't forget, Cardinals fans, how well Leinart played in his one start in 2009
Now that Kurt Warner has made the call and thrown his last NFL touchdown pass with pinpoint accuracy, what do we know about the Arizona Cardinals once again being Matt Leinart's team, other than that's what it says right here?
Maybe all we really know for certain is there's much we still don't know. Drafted 10th overall in 2006, Leinart's four-year NFL career to this point gets a well-deserved incomplete. Thanks to Warner's unprecedented late-career renaissance, Leinart has been virtually off the radar screen in Arizona for more than two and a half seasons, and the prism through which we once viewed his likely career arc is in desperate need of a fresh look.
Today, from the vantage point of January 2010, it doesn't seem quite so shocking or humiliating any more that Leinart couldn't beat out Warner in their head-to-head training camp duel of 2008. But at the time, Leinart was 25 and the future; Warner was 37 and seen as the past.
In retrospect, there's certainly no shame in having made way for the Warner of 2008-2009. Losing his job to Warner didn't make Leinart a bust, just the unlucky young quarterback whose development had to be put on hold in the pursuit of a special and unique opportunity. Knowing what we know now, the Cardinals obviously made the right choice in 2008.
When considering the possibilities of the Leinart era starting anew in Arizona, I think it's instructive to review the lessons we've already learned from the unconventional and wildly unpredictable careers of Jay Cutler and Vince Young, the other two celebrated quarterbacks selected along with Leinart in the first round of the 2006 draft.
Cutler, taken just behind Leinart at No. 11, by Denver, has ridden a rollercoaster like no other young quarterback in memory. First he was a wunderkind with the Broncos, an obvious quarterbacking talent who appeared destined to be the best of the first-round threesome. Then, in order, he morphed into a turnover-prone, risk-taking enigma, the vilified personification of the spoiled, selfish athlete, the conquering savior come to Chicago, and finally took another turn as the turnover-prone enigma, this time as a Bear. And all of that in a dizzying four-year span.
As for Young, his ride has been a bit different, but wild and chaotic nonetheless. The first quarterback taken in 2006 went from being a heralded rookie of the year talent who saved the Titans season and helped revolutionize the quarterback position, to a struggling second-year player whose dedication to his craft was called into question even within his own organization. And then the bottom fell out, with Young being benched early in 2008 in favor of Kerry Collins, and seen as an immature and disillusioned young man who was viewed as a potential threat to harm himself by those closest to him. As for his team, it won and won big without him.
Then came this season, and the revival of his career after the Titans started 0-6 with Collins. A new and improved Young took over at quarterback and went 8-2 in the season's final 10 games, becoming one of the best comeback stories of the year and again cementing himself as the future of the Tennessee franchise. Once again, all of this in an eventful four-year span.
Can we really presume to know what fate awaits the still 26-year-old Leinart as he restarts his career? Can't he have the same sort of surprises, both good and bad, still in store for us? I'd say the odds are pretty good that he does.
A few other reminders seem to be in order when it comes to Leinart and where he might go from here. It's largely forgotten now, buried by three years of mostly inactivity, but he didn't fare badly at all as a rookie in 2006. Though the Cardinals went 5-11 that season in their final year of the Dennis Green coaching era, Leinart was 4-7 as the team's starter, and certainly played well enough to deserve a win in that memorable late-game meltdown against Chicago on Monday Night Football. ("The Bears are who we thought they were!'')
Leinart actually threw two touchdowns in the first quarter in each of his first two career starts, and later that season threw for an NFL rookie-record 405 yards (on 31 of 51 passing) in a 31-26 loss at Minnesota. The Cardinals won four of Leinart's final six starts, and the former USC star set the franchise record for most passing yards by a rookie (2,547) and became the first Cardinals QB in five years to post three games with a 100-plus passer rating.
In short, Leinart's rookie season was viewed as a pretty good first step. He threw 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but he completed 60 percent or more of his passes in five of his final six starts, and had at least 200 yards passing in eight of his 11 starts. In fact, comparing Leinart's rookie season to the years just turned in by Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman shows Leinart threw for more yards, with a higher completion percentage and passer rating, and a better TD-to-INT ratio than all three of those 2009 rookies. And no one framed Sanchez, Stafford or Freeman as rookie-season failures.
In 2007, Leinart broke his collarbone in Arizona's fifth game, ending his year. But he helped lead the Cardinals to a 3-2 start in those games, albeit sharing time with Warner in some situations, when new head coach Ken Whisenhunt chose to insert the veteran to run the hurry-up or two-minute offense. Warner started the season's final 11 games and went on to throw 27 touchdown passes that season, setting up the 2008 training camp competition.
And there's one more recent footnote that should give Cardinals fans some hope in the post-Warner era: In the only start he made in 2009, Leinart played superbly, completing 21 of 31 for 220 yards without an interception in Week 12 at Tennessee. The Cardinals were in position to win until the final play of the game, but Leinart's fine performance was completely lost in the shuffle once his '06 classmate and collegiate nemesis, Vince Young, led the Titans on a breathtaking 18-play, 99-yard drive to win 20-17.
The worst that can be said about Leinart is he has proven himself to be less than effective in relief or mop-up situations playing behind Warner the past two seasons. He certainly didn't make the most of those situations and seems to play better when he opens the game, as he did against the Titans. Given Leinart's gaudy 37-2 record as a starter at USC, it makes sense that's where his comfort and experience lies.
My sense is the Cardinals will continue their transition to more of a running team under Leinart, asking more of lead back Beanie Wells than they did in his rookie season of '09, and taking some of the burden of the offense off Leinart's shoulders. They won't expect him to pick up right where Warner left off and execute the passing game to that level after almost three years of rust.
If Leinart is lucky, and best served by the Cardinals, they'll look at him anew, and reassess where his strengths and weaknesses lie as this fifth and pivotal next season of his career unfolds in Arizona. It's a good time for all of us to do the same, updating our perception of Leinart based on what we know now that we didn't know then.
He's not a first-round bust. Not yet, anyway. Just a guy who couldn't beat out a future Hall of Fame quarterback who was in the midst of maybe the greatest late-career resurgence of all time. Looking at it through that prism, Matt Leinart still has a chance to wind up being the right call for the Cardinals after all.
NFL Truth & Rumors