Leinart’s Fate Sealed Well Before Training Camp
Much has been written, talked about, and mulled over in sports bars this off-season about who the starting Cardinals quarterback should be. It’s been really one of only two public competitions taking place in Cardinals Camp, the other being the third receiver spot. The competition though may have come to an end, at least temporarily, after Matt Leinart’s poor performance this weekend in Oakland.
As you know by now, ESPN has been reporting Kurt Warner has been tapped as the starting quarterback, at least for the San Francisco game on September 7th. You notice I said at least for the San Francisco game. Although Leinart has not shown much progress, Warner hasn’t exactly set the world on fire either during the preseason. In fact, neither one of them has been the best quarterback production wise this month. That distinction would belong to third string quarterback Brian St. Pierre. This is a revolving door that could continue to revolve depending on circumstances throughout the season.
This is where I think Leinart’s fate may have been sealed last season, even before his injury cut short his second season out of the University of Southern California. In weekfour last season again Pittsburgh, coach Ken Whisenhunt employed a two quarterback system. He rotated Leinart and Warner in and out of the lineup based on game circumstances. This seemed to have benefit Warner more than Leinart. Warner was a guy seemingly stuck to the bench to tutor the prodigy Leinart while playing out the remainder of his contract and heading off in certain retirement. Then a funny thing happened. Warner was plugged into the equation when Whisenhunt felt the situation was better for Warner. Well, Warner succeeded in the rotation experiment. Although he publicly stated he would rather be the full time starter, he embraced the situation. Of course he would, this meant precious playing time for the aging MVP quarterback.
Leinart didn’t exactly denounce the whole situation, however it was obvious he was not a fan of the rotating quarterback system. However, given Leinart’s inabilities, Whisenhunt really was given no choice but to use Warner where he thought he would help, such as in long pass play situations. This was a situation, from an outsiders perspective, that was a win-win for the Cardinals and may have even produced a couple more victories in the 2007 campaign if not for the Leinart injury. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that Leinart got hurt in week five in St. Louis. His himself on a pass play and that was that. Season over. What happened next was a little more than surprising. After toiling in Arizona the previous two seasons, Warner really wasn’t expected to lead the Cardinals anywhere promising. Not nearly as quick and mobile as Leinart, one would argue Warner’s time had passed. However, Warner really took to task and produced 27 touchdowns while only throwing 17 interceptions. His really only bad game was in Seattle. Sure he fumbled away the loss that was snatched from the jaws of victory in a pivotal game against San Francisco at the end of November. However that game was over when Arizona committed a penalty on a winning field goal, only to have K Neil Rackers miss his second attempt.
Warner and the rest of the team never gave up. When falling to 6-8 after the Seattle loss, they could have packed it in and gone on to a second straight 6-10 season. Quite frankly, most Cardinals fans and casual observers expected it. Warner’s maturity and his leadership though allowed this team to overcome a scrappy Atlanta team two days before Christmas, a team that had nothing to play for except pride, and also lead them to Arizona’s biggest victory since moving to the desert, point differentially, against St. Louis in the finale, winning 48-19. Leinart, although he would have tried, may not have succeeded in that situation.
The off-season came and it was apparent that maturity was most definitely an issue for Leinart. Early in the off-season, coach Whiz did what any good coach will do. He announced Leinart would be the starting quarterback for 2008. He felt, as I do as well, a player should not lose his job to injury. Whiz said all the right things to make Leinart feel this was his team now and at least publicly, Leinart had full support from his coach. This may have made Leinart feel too comfortable.
Not long after Whiz’s statement, Leinart was caught in pictures taken from a party at his own home, helping some young ladies down a beer bong. Less than flattering pictures to say the least. This brought back the idea that Leinart had not grown up and continued his frat boy partying ways, an image some of his critics said would re-appear. Whiz had to work the public relations machine and said although he was disappointed in Leinart’s actions, he was still the Cardinals starting quarterback. This was just a lapse in judgment. Leinart also came out and eventually apologized for his actions.
This was a lapse in judgment though. Of course it wasn’t football related, however it did relate to his overall decision-making skills. A lot of people, including myself, questioned if he could lead this team, not just any team, but a team whose history is worse than George W. Bush, to greatness. Heck, I think we all hoped he could just lead this team to being a winner, forget greatness. It needs to start with winning first, then let the rest that comes with it take care of itself.
So, heading into training camp, everyone said the right things. Leinart had put the controversy behind him. Whisenhunt still proclaimed Leinart his starter. Warner stated although he was disappointed he was not the starter, he was there to support Leinart and the rest of the team anyway he could. Leinart came out and had an alright game against New Orleans in the pre-season opener. He was given most of the first half to lead the team. Warner didn’t even get to play in that game. In game two, Leinart showed his stuggles a little bit, however he did manage to lead the team on a scoring drive. Warner, I thought, played better in Kansas City.
This weekend though against Oakland though, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Leinart threw three interceptions. He failed to get his receivers the ball, grossly under-throwing them numerous times. Now of course Whisenhunt came out and defended Leinart after the game. He said that the receivers also didn’t get good jumps and the Oakland defense played really well and credit should be given to them for the interceptions. That’s what he said to the media. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the discussion behind closed doors. There are those that say one game doesn’t make for a decision. That’s right. I agree, it shouldn’t. However this isn’t a case of one bad game. It’s more of a case of history over the past 10 months both in-season and off-season where Leinart has been given his chances to prove on and off the field he is growing. He may have taken care of the off-field problems, for now. His on-field development though has not grown to the point where the Cardinals should feel 100 percent comfortable with him leading this team to its first playoffs in 10 years.
No, its time to go back to Warner, for now. Warner didn’t more win this job than Leinart lost it. Again though, things could change in a heartbeat. Leinart’s arm strength has always been a question, even going back to his college days at USC. What we are looking from Leinart now is mental development. By improving that, his physical development appears much better than it really is. Kurt Warner said himself yesterday, you make one mistake, you can fall into the trap of going back in there and thinking about it and creating the same mistakes over and over.
This is much more than a physical game. It’s a mental game and that’s the reason Kurt Warner is your starting quarterback, for now.