Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 5, 2010

Once A Sure Thing, Now Just A Bad Memory

In preparation for the start of the regular season next Thursday, NFL teams spent this weekend making the final and often painful cuts to trim their rosters down to the 53 man limit. It is a time that every year brings some surprises. One of the larger ones this year was in Arizona, where the Cardinals released quarterback Matt Leinart.

In college Leinart was one of the succession of star quarterbacks at the University of Southern California under head coach Pete Carroll, following Carson Palmer and preceding Mark Sanchez. He won the 2004 Heisman Trophy as a junior when he led the Trojans to the BCS Championship. When it came time for the 2006 NFL draft, there were those who were touting Leinart as one of the top picks, right alongside running back and teammate Reggie Bush and Texas quarterback Vince Young. But the pro scouts had doubts about Leinart’s arm strength, and he wound up still available when Arizona’s turn came in the tenth spot of the first round.

After a prolonged holdout, Leinart finally signed a six-year, $51 million contract after training camp was well underway. He joined the Cardinals with the mutual expectation that he would initially play backup to veteran Kurt Warner, but would be the franchise quarterback of Arizona’s future.

Of course the problem with expectations is that they always have this nasty habit of bumping into reality. Moved into the starting role when Warner was ineffective, Leinart did set an NFL rookie record with 405 passing yards in a November loss to the Vikings; but in the 11 games he started in his rookie season the Cardinals were just 4-7.

The following year, in keeping with the original plan, Leinart opened the season as Arizona’s starting signal caller. But early in the year he suffered a broken collarbone while being sacked by Rams linebacker Wil Witherspoon, ending his season.
One year later, the former college star entered training camp as the presumed starter, but was beaten out of the position by Warner. As we all know, the ageless Warner then went on to have two remarkable years, leading the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in the 2008 season and to the NFC title game in 2009.

While riding the bench the past two seasons Leinart apparently did little to endear himself to Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Although he began this year’s training camp as the presumptive #1 following Warner’s retirement, the Cardinals had picked up veteran Derek Anderson from the Cleveland Browns during the offseason. It quickly became apparent in training camp that Whisenhunt was conducting an open competition for the quarterback position.

In the end, just two days after their final preseason game Arizona released Leinart, opting to go with Anderson as the starter and two rookies as his backups. Although he’s only 27 and as a free agent is able to sign with any team, I don’t think the future is bright for the former Heisman winner. In his four seasons in Arizona Leinart’s quarterback rating was just 70.8, and his 14 touchdown passes were well exceeded by his 20 interceptions.

But more damaging that any statistic is the evidence that Leinart never grew into the leadership role that is the most important component of a starting quarterback in the NFL. Two years ago pictures surfaced of him partying in a hot tub surrounded by women one of whom he was helping drink beer out of a funnel. It was the kind of stuff that seems amusing in college, but considerably less so when assessing the maturity of a professional leader. In his final days as a Cardinal, Leinart did little to improve his image by complaining publicly about his lack of playing time.

Matt Leinart is by no means the first highly touted college quarterback to go bust in the NFL. Redskins’ fans still remember the unhappy experience that was Heath Shuler, who Washington took with the 3rd overall pick in 1994. Chargers faithful likewise still shudder at the mention of Ryan Leaf, the #2 pick in the 1998 draft. Leinart is just the latest proof that at quarterback especially, making the leap from college to the pros requires more than just physical ability.

Football is a team sport, but on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage the team looks to one person, and one person only, to be the leader and the steady hand in the midst of violence and chaos. Gaudy statistics and college success don’t guarantee that a young man will have that leadership ability. No scouting combine workout can reveal whether it resides inside him or not. This is why there are collegians that flame out as Leinart seems to have done. And why there are other young men who fly under the radar like sixth-round pick Tom Brady, who owns three Super Bowl rings.

To a degree every draft pick is a crapshoot. But there is no position where that is more the case than quarterback. Arizona’s release of Matt Leinart is the latest proof of that.

Meanwhile, elsewhere around the NFL, the Rams named overall #1 pick Sam Bradford as their starting quarterback in this, his rookie year. I wish the young man nothing but the best, but stay tuned.

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