LOS ANGELES -- Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell walked into the VIP Room of Lucky Strike Lanes in Hollywood on Thursday night, wrapped quarterback Matt Leinart in a massive bear hug, and whispered in his ear: "I'm hearing a lot of good things."
Word has apparently leaked back to Phoenix of Leinart's daily workouts with fellow USC quarterback alums Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel at top secret locations around Orange County. Leinart and friends have to vary their choice of local middle school and high school fields to keep USC-partisan crowds from forming in the stands.
Four years after he was drafted, Leinart remains a celebrity in Los Angeles, as evidenced by the red carpet he had to cross to enter his charity bowling event on Thursday night. In Arizona, though, he is no more than the wild card on which the upcoming season rides. If Leinart performs well, the Cardinals will probably win the NFC West for the third year in a row, which constitutes a dynasty in the desert. If he does not, he could be supplanted by Derek Anderson, just as he was supplanted by Kurt Warner.
"Matt is our guy," Campbell said. "We will live and die on his shoulders."
Leinart won the Cardinals' loyalty by waiting for it. He sat patiently on the sideline as Warner took hold of the team. Leinart clearly wished that he could be the one to guide the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, but he never said as much. He has served his penance -- and then some -- for that overblown photo of him with the girls in a Jacuzzi.
"This is the most excited I've ever been for a season by far," Leinart said. "It's the opportunity I've waited a long time for. I know this is my chance. I don't have any doubt in my mind about what I can do."
In a league desperate for quality quarterbacks, Leinart is a rarity -- a pedigreed passer who couldn't get the necessary snaps. Although he is often regarded as a first-round bust, the statistics tell a different story. As a rookie, he threw for more than 210 yards per game. He has completed more than 57 percent of his career passes. In his only start last season, he was 21 of 31 for 220 yards and no interceptions at Tennessee. He has not been Warner, by any means, but he has not been Ryan Leaf, either. This season will do much to reveal who Leinart ultimately becomes.
Even though the Cardinals acquired Anderson in March, their offense seems well-suited to Leinart. Their dual running backs, Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells, are reminiscent of Reggie Bush and LenDale White at USC. Those close to Leinart believe that Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt will protect him the way he did Ben Roethlisberger when Whisenhunt was the Steelers' offensive coordinator and Roethlisberger a rookie. That means the Cardinals will pound the ball with Wells, pitch it to Hightower, and let Leinart work off play action. He will obviously miss departed receiver Anquan Boldin, but Larry Fitzgerald is the best security blanket a young quarterback could have.
Leinart may not possess Roethlisberger's arm strength or mobility, but he knows how to read defenses and rarely misses open receivers. Of course, that was also the book on Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, who sputtered almost as much as Leinart in his first three NFL seasons before breaking loose. "Some guys have success right off the bat and some wait four or five years," Leinart said. "Tony Romo sat. Aaron Rodgers sat. It takes the right situation to show your talent. I took my own path to get to this point."
For the vaunted quarterback class of 2006, the time has come to find a measure of consistency. Vince Young followed up an abysmal 2008 with a resurgent 2009. Jay Cutler went in the opposite direction. Leinart has basically stood still. His greatest impact so far as a pro has been with the Urban Youth Football League, a full-contact league he established for kids in South Los Angeles who can't afford to play Pop Warner.
Despite the obstacles he has faced in the NFL, Leinart still ranks among USC's finest football ambassadors, especially now that Pete Carroll has fled to Seattle, Bush is being dogged by accusations that he received improper benefits, and Mike Garrett remains blind to the violations racked up by his athletic department. Like USC itself, Leinart flits between Hollywood and South L.A., and when he cruises through Heritage Hall he will no longer see the 2005 national championship trophy he helped win. "Selfishly, it doesn't affect us as much as it affects the kids who are there right now," Leinart said of USC's NCAA penalties. "That's the hard part."
Leinart is reminded of USC every day when he takes the field with Palmer and Cassel. He outperformed them in college, but now they are entrenched as NFL quarterbacks while his life as a starter is only beginning. When Leinart won the job at USC, he was taking over from Palmer, a Heisman Trophy-winner and school legend. Now he is succeeding Warner, a Super Bowl champion and potential Hall of Famer. Leinart has filled large cleats once before. The Cardinals are counting on him to do it again.