He learned some tough lessons in his first start for the Cardinals, but rookie Matt Leinart looks the part of a No. 1 QB
ANXIOUS FANS crowded into Zipps Sports Grill in suburban Phoenix shortly after 4 p.m. last Friday, grabbing any seats they could find. The audience for The Matt Leinart Show, which airs weekly on local radio, ranged from long-legged young ladies to balding, middle-aged men to wide-eyed kids clutching Nerf footballs. Fans had jammed the restaurant earlier in the season, when Leinart, the Cardinals' rookie quarterback, was merely a backup. But on this day there was added interest in hearing his comments because in two days he would be making his first NFL start.
During the hourlong show Leinart chatted with Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin and joked with a call-in guest, Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal. He didn't try too hard to entertain the crowd. Rather he was just his usual self: personable, poised and comfortable. What the fans saw in Leinart on Friday they saw again on Sunday against the Chiefs—a guy who belonged, whether it was behind a microphone or in the pocket. Despite a 23--20 loss, Leinart gave long-suffering Cardinals fans ample reason to believe the team's future is brighter than it has been in decades.
From the outset he didn't show any rookie jitters, throwing touchdown passes on Arizona's first two possessions, including a 49-yarder to Boldin for a 14--0 first-quarter lead. He called audibles with the confidence of a 10-year veteran and showed surprising mobility on bootlegs and rollouts. And after two critical mistakes—tossing a fourth-quarter interception that led to a Kansas City field goal to tie the game at 20, then taking a costly sack to drop the Cardinals out of field goal range ( Kansas City went ahead 23--20 on the ensuing possession)—Leinart rebounded, driving the Cardinals into position for a potential game-tying field goal in the final minute. But Neil Rackers's 51-yard attempt with: 07 left sailed wide right.
Leinart was disappointed afterward—"You're never happy when you lose," he said. "You just have to take what you did wrong and learn from it, which is what I'll do"—but his performance impressed others.
"We tried to confuse him with a lot of stuff," said Chiefs cornerback Patrick Surtain, "but he got them into the right plays most of the time."
Added Cardinals fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo, "We got our quarterback position under control today. Matt reminds me a lot of [the Bengals'] Carson Palmer. He doesn't rattle at all. He has a leadership ability that is really hard to find."
Leinart's numbers—22 for 35,253 yards, two TDs, one interception, a 91.7 passer rating—confirmed the faith coach Dennis Green showed in his rookie. He had planned to sit Leinart this season so he could learn from veteran Kurt Warner, but Warner's play was hardly instructive: 10 fumbles in four games, and little explosiveness. So after a 32--10 loss to the Falcons on Oct. 1, Green decided that Leinart, the 10th pick in the '06 draft, offered the best chance to win.
The Cardinals already had a sense of Leinart's ability to adapt quickly to the NFL. In a May minicamp they installed 20 to 25 pass plays each morning, and Leinart, who had mastered coordinator Norm Chow's pro-style offense at USC, had little problem picking up the plays. "Matt could go on the field and know exactly where to go with the ball after seeing a play on the board once," says Cardinals quarterbacks coach Mike Kruczek. "That's pretty rare for a guy in his first year." And though a contract holdout cost Leinart the first two weeks of training camp, in three preseason games he completed 61.7% of his passes with two TDs and no interceptions. "I showed my teammates I could play if called upon," Leinart said last week. "My big concern was gaining the respect of the veterans, and it's clear they trust me."