THE SKEPTICS willtell you it's the thin air. At an elevation of 7,000 feet, Flagstaff, Ariz.,has been known to make visitors light-headed. And clearly the ArizonaCardinals, who'll spend several weeks training in the high altitude, must bewoozy for believing that quarterback Matt Leinart finally has made football apriority and is ready to become the player they envisioned when they selectedhim at No. 10 in the 2006 draft. Right?
The publicperception of the 25-year-old Leinart is that he's more interested in scoringoff the field than on it. He was among the self-described Kings of Los Angeleswhile playing at USC, where he led the Trojans to a 37--2 record and twonational championships in three seasons as the starter. That kind of successwas enough to earn him a free pass, if not a pat on the back, when the matterof his nightlife came up.
Not so inArizona, where his struggle to make the transition to the pro game hasmagnified his off-field behavior. Leinart is 7--9 as a starter, with a 55.8completion percentage and more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (13).And each blog item about an evening dalliance with a group of coeds or awell-known Hollywood blonde has renewed the questions about his dedication andcommitment to his job.
All of thatnotwithstanding, the Cardinals believe the switch has finally been flipped forLeinart, who is trying to hold off 37-year-old Kurt Warner for the startingjob. And they have an injury to thank for it.
August 10, 2008
In the fifth gamelast fall Leinart was tackled by Rams linebacker Will Witherspoon and suffereda fractured clavicle that ended his season. Leinart now views that as ablessing in disguise, because it allowed him to step back, catch his breath andget his personal and professional affairs in order. "Last year there was alot of stuff going on in my life, on and off the field," he says inreference to a change in coaching staffs and a custody battle with formergirlfriend Brynn Cameron over their toddler son. "Personal issues wereweighing heavily on my shoulders, and they were affecting my progress on thefootball field. I'll be the first to admit I wasn't prepared. I just never hadthe chance to be stress-free and focus on what my job was."
That began tochange after the injury. Suddenly there was no pressure to play, to be thesavior of a franchise that has won only one postseason game since 1947. Still,first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt was not going to allow Leinart to come and goas he pleased. Whisenhunt learned in the 2007 preseason that Leinart respondsbest when challenged. He rode him good the week after the exhibition openeragainst Oakland, in which Leinart completed only 5 of 11 passes for 50 yardsand no scoring drives in brief action. The following week, against Houston,Leinart responded by hitting 7 of 7 for 70 yards and a touchdown.
Leinart got thesame treatment after the season opener, in which he was awful in a 20--17 lossin San Francisco. His first and last passes were picked off, and he finished 14of 28 for 102 yards and one touchdown. Whisenhunt hounded him again duringpractice the following week, and Leinart answered with a 23-of-37 performance,good for 299 yards in a 23--20 home win over Seattle. He was particularlyimpressive in the fourth quarter, completing four straight passes on a drive toset up the tying field goal. Says Whisenhunt, "When he's pushed, heresponds."
So rather thanlet up after Leinart was injured, the coach drew up a schedule that wouldchallenge his quarterback physically and mentally. To ensure that Leinartdidn't drift from the team, Whisenhunt had him rehab while fellow Cardinalswere around in the morning, then prepare scouting reports on the followingweek's opponent during the afternoon. The Cardinals used the information asthey put together their game plans.
"Everyonesays Hollywood this, Hollywood that, but he was in there with us in film studyevery single day after practice, critiquing the game film, watching the gameplan," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald says of Leinart. "He knew thegame plan as if he was playing in it. That's when I saw that the game really isimportant to him. It wasn't about the glitz and the glamour. It was about beinggreat. That showed me all I needed to see about Matt."
OF ALL theoff-field distractions, Leinart says the one that most affected him was a storyin the Ventura County Star in July 2007 in which Cameron, a USC basketballplayer, said that Leinart was not spending as much time with their son, Cole,as the public had been led to believe. Leinart challenged the assertion, andthe issue was resolved last August after he petitioned the courts for increasedcustody.
"A lot ofpeople have perceptions about athletes that when they have a child out ofwedlock, it's like, whatever," says Warner. "But I've seen Matt agonizeover it. I've seen it really bother him when dealing with issues of how muchhe's going to see his son. I've watched him on an away trip pull out hiscalendar and try to work out his off-season so that he could see his son asmuch as he wanted to. It's real."
Adds Leinart,"There's no greater feeling than the love I have for my son. I've workedextremely hard at having a good and loving relationship and watching my songrow over the past two years."
Still, it didn'thelp the image of a more mature Matt when photos turned up on the Internet inthe spring showing Leinart partying at his house in Chandler, Ariz., with agroup of college-age girls. Leinart says the incident taught him to be evenmore careful about whom he associates with and to further tone down his sociallife.
"Will he goout again?" says Warner. "Probably. Is that a bad thing? Absolutelynot. Other players do the same thing. It's just that Matt hasn't accomplishedanything on the field at this level, so that contributes to the perception thatit's party all the time."
NO ONE in theorganization is predicting Leinart will put up numbers like he did at USC,where he threw for 10,693 yards and 99 touchdowns with only 23 interceptions inthree seasons, but in Flagstaff the coaches are seeing improvement in histechnique and his ability to read defenses. One of the little thingsquarterbacks coach Jeff Rutledge has been tweaking is Leinart's footwork. Forinstance, when pulling away from center, his first step used to be to the side.Now it's straight back. That's critical because when the defense gets pressureup the middle, there's less chance that his dropback will be disrupted.
Whisenhunt saysLeinart is also showing much better understanding of his offense and howdefenses will attack it, a comfort level that will allow the quarterback tostep to the line with a clear head, rather than going over in his mind the snapcount, his teammates' assignments or whether he's making the right protectionadjustment. For the most part he can just play.
And while there'sreal competition from Warner, who threw 27 touchdown passes last year whilesubbing for Leinart, there's no animosity. The two are close. Last year Leinarteven opened up to Warner about his frustration after the elder passer replacedhim in a couple of early-season games. As for this year's quarterback derby,Leinart says, "He wants the job, and he's breathing down my neck. Myattitude is, I'm not going to let him take it. It's that friendly rivalrythat's making us better. But it's on the football field. You leave it on thefield, and everything is fine."
Whisenhunt sayshe's prepared to go through the preseason before naming his starter for theSept. 7 opener in San Francisco. Although Leinart is performing well, the coachwants to keep the pressure on him while giving Warner a fair shot at thejob.
"We're goingto assess who gives us the best chance to win," says Whisenhunt. "Butthat being said, if it's close, if it looks like it's a hard decision, it'sMatt."
"I'll be the first to admit I WASN'TPREPARED," Leinart says of 2007. "I never had a chance to bestress-free and focus on my job."
"He's wants the job," Leinart says of Warner."He's BREATHING DOWN MY NECK. I'm not going to let him take it."
The Throes of Battle
Five quarterback competitions that are heating up NFLtraining camps
Troy Smith vs. Joe Flacco vs. Kyle Boller
"LeBron James was dominating the NBA at 18," Ravens offensivecoordinator Cam Cameron told his QBs in camp. "Michelle Wie was a progolfer at, what, 13? Let's not go making it so impossible to play quarterbackin the NFL as a rookie." While second-year man Smith is the most logicalcandidate to start in Week 1 because he's polished and confident (and not asinconsistent as former starter Boller), Baltimore's goal is to get Flacco(left, 5), the 2008 first-round pick from Delaware, ready to play sometime thisseason. He has looked confident but scatter-armed so far in camp. "I needto get faster," Flacco says. "I need to make decisions quicker."Spoken like a rookie.
New York Jets
Kellen Clemens vs. Chad Pennington
Do the Jets go with Pennington (left, 10), the safer, more accurate veteran? Ordo they give the job to Clemens (11), the man they drafted in '06 to be theirquarterback of the future but who has had only eight starts to prove himself? Ascrimmage last Saturday played up each passer's strengths. Pennington was moreaccurate (8 of 14 to Clemens's 8 of 22) and lofted a perfect timing pass toJerricho Cotchery for a 27-yard score. Clemens threw the kind of bulletPennington can't—a 55-yarder to rookie tight end Dustin Keller for a TD.Clemens also had four straight practices without a pick in team competition, sohe might be moving ahead.
Kyle Orton vs. Rex Grossman
The problem with judging these QBs is that Grossman is world-class—in practice.In all likelihood he'll play better than Orton this month, but coach LovieSmith must determine whether that's the same mirage he has seen the last twoseasons: Once the real games started, Grossman (left, 8) completed a middling54.5% of his passes, with 27 touchdowns and 27 picks. Both players have beensharp early and say they're not feeling the heat. "It's self-[imposed]pressure between Rex and me," says Orton (18), who started three games lastyear (43 of 80, three TDs, two INTs). While Smith could go either way, he knowsthat many of his veteran players prefer Orton.
San Francisco 49ers
Alex Smith vs. Shaun Hill vs. J.T. O'Sullivan
The Niners made Smith (left, 11) the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft andguaranteed him $24 million. They aren't happy with what they've gotten inreturn: 19 TD passes, 31 interceptions and an 11--19 record as a starter. Hencethe strong looks at career backups Hill (13) and O'Sullivan (14). "Youwonder how much they're behind you," says Smith, "but I also look athow I haven't produced consistently." This is the fourth straight year SanFrancisco has had a new offensive coordinator, a new No. 1 wideout and arevamped line. Still, the focus is on the QBs. "There's nothing to not likeabout Alex, but his confidence is down a little bit," coordinator MikeMartz says. "He's not as decisive as he has to be."
Josh McCown vs. Chad Henne vs. John Beck
This one's wide open. The Miami brass grew fond of Beck (left, passing) in theoff-season, but he hasn't had a very good early camp and might be pressing.Journeyman McCown (4) has the best feel for the offense, but there's still amonth to go, which gives the rookie Henne (7), a four-year starter at Michigan,a chance to learn the system and play very early in the season. First-yearcoach Tony Sparano will likely open with the man who shines brightest in thefour preseason games. The tea leaves say that will be McCown, given hisexperience (31 NFL starts) and veteran offensive coordinator Dan Henning'sconservative nature.