It was 2006, and life was easy for former USC quarterback Matt Leinart. He was a Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion, as well as the No. 10 selection in the NFL Draft. After a protracted holdout, he was the holder of a six-year, $51 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
Leinart was everybody’s darling. He had Hollywood celebrities on his speed-dial and made several television appearances—including one for NFL Sunday Ticket, in which Archie Manning could be seen tutoring him instead of his own quarterback sons—before he ever took an NFL snap. In 2006, it was good to be Matt Leinart.
Fast-forward four years. Now, Leinart is a third-string quarterback for the Houston Texans, recently signed at a bargain-basement discount after being cut by the Cardinals. The presumptive starter after Kurt Warner’s retirement, Leinart never distinguished himself in training camp and was finally beaten out by Derek Anderson. It is worth noting that Anderson is a passer of such marginal talent that he couldn’t beat out Brady Quinn in Cleveland.
Think about that for a moment. The starting job was Matt Leinart’s to lose, and he lost it to a quarterback the Cleveland Browns did not want.
After briefly exploring trade possibilities, the Cardinals learned that no other team wanted Leinart any more than Arizona did. Unable to get anything for him, the Cards released Leinart outright.
What happened in just four short years?
Well, lots of things happened, the most significant of which may have been former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green’s firing. It was Green who drafted Leinart, seeing something in the left-handed passer that successor Ken Whisenhunt never saw.
Despite Leinart’s prototypical size—6’5”, 230 pounds—he does not possess a strong arm. He plays the game tentatively, rarely taking chances down the field. And, perhaps just as importantly, Leinart does not have the leadership qualities required to take charge of a huddle full of alpha-males.
So the former Heisman Trophy winner languishes on the bench in Houston behind a Pro-Bowl caliber passer in Matt Schaub, and some other guy named Dan Orlovsky. Gone are the commercials, the flash bulbs, and the starlets. His former “friends” in Hollywood are no longer returning his calls. Barring a miracle, Matt Leinart’s career as a starting NFL quarterback is over.
We’re all geniuses when armed with the clarity of hindsight, but there are three things Leinart could have done to salvage his career with the Cardinals:
Impress the New Boss
It is a poorly-kept secret that Whisenhunt was never terribly impressed with Leinart’s arm and work habits. The ex-USC passer has never been known for his hard work. In college, surrounded by blue-chip offensive talent (including fellow Heisman winner Reggie Bush), he didn’t have to work hard. He simply had to get the ball to the playmakers and stand back while they racked up the yards.
Things are a lot different in the pros. The NFL’s best quarterbacks—Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees—are grinders. They study film, do extra work with their receivers, and organize informal workouts in the offseason. Leinart doesn’t seem inclined to do these things, but if he had, it would have gone a long way toward getting Whisenhunt’s attention. Would have made him a better player, too.
Keep the Lip Zipped
Leinart probably put the final nail in his own coffin during the summer, when he publicly questioned his coach’s decision to limit his minutes during a preseason game. He implied to reporters that Whisenhunt owed him an explanation.
The outburst told the Cardinals the last two things they needed to know about Leinart: He felt a sense of entitlement that he had not come close to earning, and he was inclined to shoot off his mouth out of turn.
If relegated to the second team, Leinart would not have been an ideal backup for the Cards. You don’t want your No. 2 guy telling everyone who will listen that he thinks he should be No. 1.
Exercise a Little Patience
Kurt Warner wrested the starting job away from Leinart before Arizona's Super Bowl season, but in retrospect, that was hardly a surprise. Warner is, at worst, a borderline Hall of Famer.
Derek Anderson, however, is another story. With the exception of a surprisingly good 2007 season, Anderson has done nothing to establish himself as a starting NFL quarterback. His field vision is limited, and he routinely makes poor decisions that result in multiple-interception games.
Had Leinart simply worked hard, kept his mouth shut, and waited his turn, he would have gotten onto the field eventually, after Anderson laid a three or four interception egg. Now he has to try to edge out Dan Orlovsky for the backup job in Houston for a lot less money.
Things could still go Leinart’s way, but the stars have to be aligned perfectly in his favor. He’d have to somehow get on the field in Houston and play impressively. Then, because Matt Schaub is entrenched as the Texans' starter, another team would have to be willing to take a chance on Leinart.
This is not likely to happen. A strong-armed quarterback who washes out with a team will usually get a second chance. For a weak-armed passer with suspect work habits and a reputation as a spoiled malcontent, second chances are a little harder to come by.