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"A lot of people have perceptions about athletes that when they have a child out of wedlock, it's like, whatever," says Warner. "But I've seen Matt agonize over it. I've seen it really bother him when dealing with issues of how much he's going to see his son. I've watched him on an away trip pull out his calendar and try to work out his off-season so that he could see his son as much as he wanted to. It's real."
Adds Leinart, "There's no greater feeling than the love I have for my son. I've worked extremely hard at having a good and loving relationship and watching my son grow over the past two years."
Still, it didn't help the image of a more mature Matt when photos turned up on the Internet in the spring showing Leinart partying at his house in Chandler, Ariz., with a group of college-age girls. Leinart says the incident taught him to be even more careful about whom he associates with and to further tone down his social life.
"Will he go out again?" says Warner. "Probably. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. Other players do the same thing. It's just that Matt hasn't accomplished anything on the field at this level, so that contributes to the perception that it's party all the time."
NO ONE in the organization is predicting Leinart will put up numbers like he did at USC, where he threw for 10,693 yards and 99 touchdowns with only 23 interceptions in three seasons, but in Flagstaff the coaches are seeing improvement in his technique and his ability to read defenses. One of the little things quarterbacks coach Jeff Rutledge has been tweaking is Leinart's footwork. For instance, when pulling away from center, his first step used to be to the side. Now it's straight back. That's critical because when the defense gets pressure up the middle, there's less chance that his dropback will be disrupted.
Whisenhunt says Leinart is also showing much better understanding of his offense and how defenses will attack it, a comfort level that will allow the quarterback to step to the line with a clear head, rather than going over in his mind the snap count, his teammates' assignments or whether he's making the right protection adjustment. For the most part he can just play.
And while there's real competition from Warner, who threw 27 touchdown passes last year while subbing for Leinart, there's no animosity. The two are close. Last year Leinart even opened up to Warner about his frustration after the elder passer replaced him in a couple of early-season games. As for this year's quarterback derby, Leinart says, "He wants the job, and he's breathing down my neck. My attitude is, I'm not going to let him take it. It's that friendly rivalry that's making us better. But it's on the football field. You leave it on the field, and everything is fine."
Whisenhunt says he's prepared to go through the preseason before naming his starter for the Sept. 7 opener in San Francisco. Although Leinart is performing well, the coach wants to keep the pressure on him while giving Warner a fair shot at the job.
"We're going to assess who gives us the best chance to win," says Whisenhunt. "But that being said, if it's close, if it looks like it's a hard decision, it's Matt."