Thursday August 28th, 2008

Last weekend you might have heard that Matt Leinart stunk it up in the "all-important'' third preseason game, throwing three interceptions in 12 passing attempts against the Raiders and posting a microscopic 2.8 passer rating. Predictably, soon thereafter came the anonymously sourced report he was about to lose his job as the Cardinals starting quarterback. He hasn't yet, but that almost seems besides the point.

Such was Leinart's plight in recent days, and some how, some way, even though we haven't even reached the end of August yet, it has become something of a foregone conclusion his days as the No. 1 in Arizona are indeed numbered. The shorthand has quickly become: Leinart's a failure, and the Cardinals are Kurt Warner's team once again. That judgment made, we moved on to other juicier topics like Michael Strahan's potential un-retirement or whether the four-game preseason has finally out-lived its usefulness.

But hold on just a minute. How exactly did things reach such a crossroads so suddenly for Leinart, the draft's 10th overall pick just two years ago? How is it there's this rush to label his era in Arizona almost ended before it has even begun? And yes, almost before it has even begun is entirely apt. Here are a few reminders that might surprise you in the case of Leinart's still-nascent Cardinals career:

• The former Heisman-winning USC quarterback has started only 16 games in his first two years in the desert, the equivalent of one full regular season. He has missed 12 games due to shoulder injuries -- including last year's broken left collarbone, which ended his season after five starts -- made one relief appearance, and sat the bench for three others.

• Leinart, who turned 25 in May, is 7-9 as a Cardinals starter. That's not a great record by any means, but for a team that has made the playoffs just once (1998) in the past 26 years, it's not too shabby. By comparison, in games Leinart hasn't started the past two years, Arizona is 6-10.

• To be sure, Leinart's meltdown against Oakland last Saturday night was hide-the-children's-eyes ugly. But he had passer ratings of 114.1 and 108.9 in the Cardinals' previous two preseason games, with one touchdown pass and nary a turnover. Again, Leinart this year is returning from a major injury to his left shoulder, which is no trivial issue for a guy who makes his living with his left arm.

• Lastly, a check of Leinart's career numbers show he is well within the statistical norm for a young quarterback still learning his craft. He has thrown for 3,194 yards in those 16-plus games, with a 56.0 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 71.2 passer rating. As a rookie in 2006, he had 100-plus passer ratings in three of his final six starts, and threw for an NFL rookie-record 405 yards in a November game at Minnesota. But in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL, especially in this age of instant analysis, can anyone even remember back that far?

All in all, it hardly adds up to anything that makes Leinart worthy of a hasty assignment to the scrap heap. While one can rightfully claim the 37-year-old Warner probably gives the Cardinals a better chance of winning games right now, Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt at the least will be keeping Leinart on a very short leash when it comes to the starting role. The quick take that has morphed into conventional wisdom is it was Leinart's job to lose, and he appears to be losing it.

But even if that is the case, and Leinart doesn't wind up starting Week 1 this season, I'm amazed so many seem to have already reached the conclusion he can't possibly end up succeeding in Arizona. What we've seen so far certainly shouldn't relegate him to failure status at the tender age of 25, with just those 16 starts under his belt. That's way too harsh, way too soon, and lacking in anything resembling long-term perspective.

Thinking about Leinart's deteriorating situation this week led me to recall another highly regarded collegiate quarterback from California, who, like Leinart, was drafted in the NFL's top 10 and then struggled for the better part of his first three seasons before finding his stride in the league. Both Leinart, who went 10th in 2006, and Trent Dilfer, selected 6th by Tampa Bay in 1994, were the second quarterbacks taken in their draft classes, behind Tennessee's Vince Young (No. 3) and Washington's Heath Shuler (No. 3), respectively.

I was a Bucs beat writer covering the young Dilfer, who started just two games as a rookie in '94, and then made all 16 of Tampa Bay's starts in 1995. In his first 18 often-ragged NFL starts, Dilfer threw for five touchdowns, 24 interceptions, absorbed 55 sacks, completed 52.7 of his passes for 3,207 yards, and compiled QB abysmal ratings of 36.3 and 60.1 in those two seasons. In other words, his career got off to a considerably worse start than Leinart's, with both passers happening to toil for long downtrodden, non-winning franchises.

Judging by the first two years of his career, Dilfer should have been toast as an NFL quarterback. A complete first-round bust. But a funny thing happened on his way to infamy. By his third season, in 1996, Dilfer was respectable. By year four, he was an NFC Pro Bowl quarterback, and Tampa Bay was a playoff team for the first time in 15 years. In the seventh season of what would eventually become a 14-year NFL career, Dilfer started and won a Super Bowl with Baltimore. So when Dilfer sees Leinart's struggles today, few can understand and empathize to the degree he can.

"Sixteen starts into his career, to have people already saying he doesn't have it, that's ludicrous,'' the recently retired Dilfer told me in a phone interview this week. "For a quarterback in this league, it really takes about 40 starts until you can truly see and evaluate someone. Until then, in trying to make a judgment about a guy, you're being way too subjective.''

In his new post-playing days career as one of ESPN's multitude of NFL analysts, Dilfer is preparing to make weekly top-of-the-head pronouncements about the highs and lows of players around the league, especially the always-under-the-microscope set: the quarterbacks. But he knows better than most the pithy comment and the, ahem, snap judgment is often an invitation to be wrong when it comes to young quarterbacks and their far-from-pretty-to-watch learning process.

"The major thing I see in general about young quarterbacks are that the expectations are too high, too soon, and because of that, how they get evaluated and the perspective of those evaluating them is a little warped,'' said Dilfer, who retired this offseason after spending the past two seasons backing up yet another struggling young quarterback, 2005 first overall pick Alex Smith in San Francisco. "You're expecting to see third or fourth-year polish on someone who's just not there yet.

"It was really into my fourth year in Tampa before I realized I could play in this league, and understood what it took to be successful. I was just awful up until 40 starts or so. Those first two years, it was bad. I didn't do much of anything particularly well. But a lot of these questions just can't be answered until further down the line.''

Dilfer takes pains to note he's not saying Leinart necessarily deserves to play ahead of the more productive Warner right now, or that Arizona will retard his development if they don't keep him as their starter for all 16 games this season. He concedes "the guy in front of him is probably better right now, and Leinart probably would be better off for sitting a while this year.''

But when he hears the judgments being passed about Leinart's still-formative NFL game, he can't help but point out the fallacies he believes are being employed by those who have rushed to label Leinart a failure.

"They keep talking about his lack of arm strength, but if that was the only component, you think people wouldn't have given up on Steve Young early on, or even Joe Montana?'' Dilfer said. "Are you kidding me? Those guys didn't have big arms, but that didn't stop them from being Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

"If you get to start your career with a couple years on the bench before you have to play, like a Tony Romo or a Steve McNair or a Chad Pennington, then you can judge them quickly when they get their chance to play. But to be thrown in the fire as a rookie quarterback in this league, and be judged on just your body of work for your first 16 games or so, that's ludicrous.''

Dilfer estimates it took until at least midway through his third season -- when he was approaching his 30th career start -- until he started playing fast enough to keep up with the rapid speed in which the NFL game unfolds. That's when his hesitancy decreased and more of his instinctual play surfaced. In short, he had seen enough action to have mental pictures of what has to happen on the field to execute successfully at quarterback. You can't really know what it looks like until you've endured the trial and error phase of learning the position, and many young highly touted quarterbacks never get the luxury of playing their way through that often unsightly process.

"There's no freedom to fail any more for the young quarterback in the NFL,'' Dilfer said. "And every young quarterback has to have some freedom to fail. They can be told and shown what to work on, but when they fail at it, it can't be the end of the world. It's part of the learning curve. You need the freedom to learn from those failures, and learn how to get back up.

"What's happened with Matt, and Alex Smith, and David Carr in Houston is that when they made mistakes, they've had their teammates, the fans, the media and their coaches all talking about it so much that every mistake has been magnified. They've never been given the freedom to be rough around the edges for a while. And a quarterback who is tentative and afraid of making mistakes is a quarterback who will never be playing at maximum potential.''

In Leinart's case, the bar of expectation has been so high in part because he was supposed to have entered the NFL as pro-ready as any quarterback in recent memory. USC is basically the NFL's 33rd franchise, right? And the Trojans' pro-style and sophisticated offense was ideally suited to Leinart making a quick transition to a league where the passing game reigns supreme.

But it hasn't been quick enough to keep the stench of failure away from Leinart, or buy him enough time to finish the maturation process he's still in the middle of. And now, with the pressure starting to truly build on Leinart in Arizona, Dilfer sees a young player who has lost confidence and can almost hear the clock ticking on his franchise-quarterback opportunity.

"It's information overload for a lot of young quarterbacks, and that leads to not playing fast and a lack of decisiveness,'' Dilfer said. "When you're not decisive, many times you just haven't seen everything out there on the field that you need to see. You haven't had enough reps yet. You can't just grip it and rip it. That leads to a lack of fundamentals and overall sloppiness.''

And that leads to another young quarterback in crisis mode. And usually to the bench. Which is where many believe Leinart is soon headed. It has been yet another quick trip to a crossroads for a first-round quarterback. In the NFL, the journey from draft-day prospect to a suspect career seems to get faster all the time.

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