Winging It

He learned some tough lessons in his first start for the Cardinals, but rookie Matt Leinart looks the part of a No. 1 QB

ANXIOUS FANS crowded into Zipps Sports Grill in suburban Phoenix shortly after 4 p.m. last Friday, grabbing any seats they could find. The audience for The Matt Leinart Show, which airs weekly on local radio, ranged from long-legged young ladies to balding, middle-aged men to wide-eyed kids clutching Nerf footballs. Fans had jammed the restaurant earlier in the season, when Leinart, the Cardinals' rookie quarterback, was merely a backup. But on this day there was added interest in hearing his comments because in two days he would be making his first NFL start.

During the hourlong show Leinart chatted with Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin and joked with a call-in guest, Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal. He didn't try too hard to entertain the crowd. Rather he was just his usual self: personable, poised and comfortable. What the fans saw in Leinart on Friday they saw again on Sunday against the Chiefs—a guy who belonged, whether it was behind a microphone or in the pocket. Despite a 23--20 loss, Leinart gave long-suffering Cardinals fans ample reason to believe the team's future is brighter than it has been in decades.

From the outset he didn't show any rookie jitters, throwing touchdown passes on Arizona's first two possessions, including a 49-yarder to Boldin for a 14--0 first-quarter lead. He called audibles with the confidence of a 10-year veteran and showed surprising mobility on bootlegs and rollouts. And after two critical mistakes—tossing a fourth-quarter interception that led to a Kansas City field goal to tie the game at 20, then taking a costly sack to drop the Cardinals out of field goal range (Kansas City went ahead 23--20 on the ensuing possession)—Leinart rebounded, driving the Cardinals into position for a potential game-tying field goal in the final minute. But Neil Rackers's 51-yard attempt with: 07 left sailed wide right.

Leinart was disappointed afterward—"You're never happy when you lose," he said. "You just have to take what you did wrong and learn from it, which is what I'll do"—but his performance impressed others.

"We tried to confuse him with a lot of stuff," said Chiefs cornerback Patrick Surtain, "but he got them into the right plays most of the time."

Added Cardinals fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo, "We got our quarterback position under control today. Matt reminds me a lot of [the Bengals'] Carson Palmer. He doesn't rattle at all. He has a leadership ability that is really hard to find."

Leinart's numbers—22 for 35,253 yards, two TDs, one interception, a 91.7 passer rating—confirmed the faith coach Dennis Green showed in his rookie. He had planned to sit Leinart this season so he could learn from veteran Kurt Warner, but Warner's play was hardly instructive: 10 fumbles in four games, and little explosiveness. So after a 32--10 loss to the Falcons on Oct. 1, Green decided that Leinart, the 10th pick in the '06 draft, offered the best chance to win.

The Cardinals already had a sense of Leinart's ability to adapt quickly to the NFL. In a May minicamp they installed 20 to 25 pass plays each morning, and Leinart, who had mastered coordinator Norm Chow's pro-style offense at USC, had little problem picking up the plays. "Matt could go on the field and know exactly where to go with the ball after seeing a play on the board once," says Cardinals quarterbacks coach Mike Kruczek. "That's pretty rare for a guy in his first year." And though a contract holdout cost Leinart the first two weeks of training camp, in three preseason games he completed 61.7% of his passes with two TDs and no interceptions. "I showed my teammates I could play if called upon," Leinart said last week. "My big concern was gaining the respect of the veterans, and it's clear they trust me."

Though the 1--4 Cardinals are last in the NFC West, Leinart is bent on showing teammates that the team will improve with him at quarterback. "I just can't try to do too much or think too much," he says. "I just have to keep trusting my preparation and get the ball to my playmakers. It's like [USC coach Pete] Carroll used to tell me in college: The team is a car, and I'm the one driving it. The only thing I have to worry about is not driving it off the road."

First Impressions

Matt Leinart's 91.7 passer rating in his first start was the best debut of the eight quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2003 who got the call to start in their rookie seasons. Here are the first-game numbers of the other seven.

Debut game Comp-Att Yds TD/Int Rtg
Vince Young (right), Titans, 20 06 4 (L) 14--29 155 1/2 47.3
Alex Smith 49ers, 2005 5 (L) 9--23 74 0/4 8.5
Eli Manning Giants, 2004 10 (L) 17--37 162 1/2 45.1
Ben Roethlisberger Steelers, 2004 3 (W) 12--22 163 1/1 74.6
Byron Leftwich Jaguars, 2003 4 (L) 17--36 231 1/3 42.7
Kyle Boller Ravens, 2003 1 (L) 22--43 152 1/1 57.5
Rex Grossman Bears, 2003 14 (W) 13--30 157 0/0 60.0

No rookie starts: Carson Palmer (2003); Philip Rivers and J.P. Losman ('04); Aaron Rodgers and Jason Campbell ('05); Jay Cutler ('06)

Read Jeffri Chadiha's Inside the NFL at SI.com/nfl.

TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONDOUGHWELCOME MATT
Leinart's commanding presence earned praise, and his passing wasn't too shabby either.
PHOTOBRIAN SPURLOCK/US PRESSWIRE (YOUNG)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)