THE SKEPTICS will
tell you it's the thin air. At an elevation of 7,000 feet, Flagstaff, Ariz.,
has been known to make visitors light-headed. And clearly the Arizona
Cardinals, who'll spend several weeks training in the high altitude, must be
woozy for believing that quarterback Matt Leinart finally has made football a
priority and is ready to become the player they envisioned when they selected
him at No. 10 in the 2006 draft. Right?
perception of the 25-year-old Leinart is that he's more interested in scoring
off the field than on it. He was among the self-described Kings of Los Angeles
while playing at USC, where he led the Trojans to a 37--2 record and two
national championships in three seasons as the starter. That kind of success
was enough to earn him a free pass, if not a pat on the back, when the matter
of his nightlife came up.
Not so in
Arizona, where his struggle to make the transition to the pro game has
magnified his off-field behavior. Leinart is 7--9 as a starter, with a 55.8
completion percentage and more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (13).
And each blog item about an evening dalliance with a group of coeds or a
well-known Hollywood blonde has renewed the questions about his dedication and
commitment to his job.
All of that
notwithstanding, the Cardinals believe the switch has finally been flipped for
Leinart, who is trying to hold off 37-year-old Kurt Warner for the starting
job. And they have an injury to thank for it.
In the fifth game
last fall Leinart was tackled by Rams linebacker Will Witherspoon and suffered
a fractured clavicle that ended his season. Leinart now views that as a
blessing in disguise, because it allowed him to step back, catch his breath and
get his personal and professional affairs in order. "Last year there was a
lot of stuff going on in my life, on and off the field," he says in
reference to a change in coaching staffs and a custody battle with former
girlfriend Brynn Cameron over their toddler son. "Personal issues were
weighing heavily on my shoulders, and they were affecting my progress on the
football field. I'll be the first to admit I wasn't prepared. I just never had
the chance to be stress-free and focus on what my job was."
That began to
change after the injury. Suddenly there was no pressure to play, to be the
savior of a franchise that has won only one postseason game since 1947. Still,
first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt was not going to allow Leinart to come and go
as he pleased. Whisenhunt learned in the 2007 preseason that Leinart responds
best when challenged. He rode him good the week after the exhibition opener
against Oakland, in which Leinart completed only 5 of 11 passes for 50 yards
and no scoring drives in brief action. The following week, against Houston,
Leinart responded by hitting 7 of 7 for 70 yards and a touchdown.
Leinart got the
same treatment after the season opener, in which he was awful in a 20--17 loss
in San Francisco. His first and last passes were picked off, and he finished 14
of 28 for 102 yards and one touchdown. Whisenhunt hounded him again during
practice the following week, and Leinart answered with a 23-of-37 performance,
good for 299 yards in a 23--20 home win over Seattle. He was particularly
impressive in the fourth quarter, completing four straight passes on a drive to
set up the tying field goal. Says Whisenhunt, "When he's pushed, he
So rather than
let up after Leinart was injured, the coach drew up a schedule that would
challenge his quarterback physically and mentally. To ensure that Leinart
didn't drift from the team, Whisenhunt had him rehab while fellow Cardinals
were around in the morning, then prepare scouting reports on the following
week's opponent during the afternoon. The Cardinals used the information as
they put together their game plans.
says Hollywood this, Hollywood that, but he was in there with us in film study
every single day after practice, critiquing the game film, watching the game
plan," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald says of Leinart. "He knew the
game plan as if he was playing in it. That's when I saw that the game really is
important to him. It wasn't about the glitz and the glamour. It was about being
great. That showed me all I needed to see about Matt."
OF ALL the
off-field distractions, Leinart says the one that most affected him was a story
in the Ventura County Star in July 2007 in which Cameron, a USC basketball
player, said that Leinart was not spending as much time with their son, Cole,
as the public had been led to believe. Leinart challenged the assertion, and
the issue was resolved last August after he petitioned the courts for increased