TEMPE, Ariz. – Kurt Warner grinned and rubbed the carpet of salt-and-pepper needles on his chin. Taking refuge in the shade of a tree near the Arizona Cardinals' practice facility, he contemplated whether the franchise could still cast its lot with a persona as square and wholesome as a carton of milk.
"Why can't a veteran guy become the face of a franchise? Why can't he be the guy?" Warner asked. "I would love for it to be that way."
It seems like a reasonable enough flight of fancy, even for a quarterback who turns 37 next month. Particularly given the media blitz over recently leaked photos proving that Matt Leinart does indeed enjoy a fiesta in his free time. And while those pictures provided little (if any) legitimate insight on the football field, they have served to overshadow a drama bound to unfold three months from now.
As Leinart enters what should be his pivotal third year of development as a quarterback, Warner said he's expecting – and stop us if you've heard this before – a legitimate opportunity to unseat the assumed future of the franchise.
"The indications are that I'm going to get a shot – that the best player is going to play," Warner said. "I've been there before and had coaches who tell me one thing and do another, so you're always skeptical. You know how this business works with draft picks and money and all of those things. But until the people here prove me wrong as far as what they say, I've got no reason to doubt it. … They told me the best player is going to play come the first Sunday of the fall. That's what I hang my hat on."
While Warner isn't coming out and guaranteeing that player will be him, he's not being bashful about where he thinks he stands with the coaching staff. Eight seasons since he went from obscurity to supernova with the St. Louis Rams, he is coming off one of the best performances of his career in 2007 – 27 touchdown passes, 3,417 yards and an 89.8 passer rating. Perhaps even more impressive was Warner's second half of the season, when he threw 21 touchdowns in Arizona's final eight games, leading the Cardinals to a 5-3 record in that span. All the while, Warner was winning the respect of the coaching staff and teammates by playing through a dislocated elbow on his non-throwing arm.
"Kurt came in, and we saw what kind of an offensive team we could be," running back Edgerrin James said. "He was experienced and knew his stuff. A lot of quarterbacks, they get even better as they get older because of the mental part of the game. That's what Kurt is doing."
But does that make Warner the de-facto locker room favorite going into next season?
"Man, I'm the wrong person to ask about that stuff," James said. "Whatever they decide to do, I'm here to support either decision. I'm friends with both of those guys, so I don't want to get in the middle of it."
There is no denying the contrast in the race, whether it's from a personality standpoint or from a developmental aspect. Socially polarized in some respects, the pair appears to be naturally on the opposite side of the developmental spectrum as well. While Warner winds his career down looking for one last starburst, Leinart still struggles to get a foothold while trying to live up to his status as a first-round pick and Heisman Trophy winner.
Those stages were painfully obvious last season when the implantation of Ken Whisenhunt's new offensive system provided the pair with their first curve of 2007. Leinart mostly struggled through an inconsistent five games before being knocked out for the season with a collarbone injury. Meanwhile, Warner's experience level padded his adjustment, and he began rotating into games in week three, commanding no-huddle packages and showing an instant spark. And though there was an initial strain on the relationship after Leinart's deactivation, it never approached the emotional tug-of-war that plagued Warner's competitions with Marc Bulger and Eli Manning.
Whether the pair can maintain in the raised stakes of 2008 remains to be seen. But undoubtedly, there will be a new level of pressure – particularly for Leinart. Whisenhunt has been unambiguous when it has come to the team's starting job, stating clearly that it belongs to Leinart. This despite producing mediocre numbers in 17 career games: 56-percent completion rate, 13 touchdown, 16 interceptions and a 71.2 quarterback rating. Those sub-par digits that make this season's importance crystal clear.
"I know the coaches have confidence in me, but it is time for me to step up and go out there and play," Leinart said. "I know the business of this game and it is a competitive game and we have another great quarterback on this roster in Kurt Warner who is pushing me every day to get better. He is right there as well. … I have to keep working hard because nothing comes easy."
And nothing comes without the watchful eye of criticism, either. Leinart learned that the hard way last month when photos surfaced of him sitting in a hot tub with several young women and holding a beer bong in another. In truth, the pictures meant little in terms of Leinart's job performance. But they added speculative fuel to the criticism that he is too focused on socializing – a label that some NFL personnel men attached to him prior to the 2006 NFL draft.
"You learn from things like that," Leinart said. "You learn life lessons and learn from your mistakes. Yeah, it is hard to trust anybody when you are in a position like I am in – a position like all these guys are in when you are a professional athlete. Your circle kind of gets closer, tighter around you and that is not necessarily a bad thing."
As Warner put it, the furor over the pictures was simply a byproduct of people looking for reasons to criticize Leinart's rough start.
"Had he accomplished a lot in the NFL, it's just another picture of a guy having a good time and people forget about it," Warner said. "Sometimes you learn the hard way, as a lot of guys have. When you haven't done a whole lot on the field and a lot of people are counting on you, they blow little things into huge things. And it's going to continue to hang over your head until you cross that barrier of success. These things are going to continue to hang on his head every bad game he has."
Now the onus is on Leinart to put the criticism to bed. And Whisenhunt is quick to point out big strides: an improved grasp of the offense and an ability to dissect film – the latter of which developed as Leinart used his time on injured reserve to scout upcoming opponents and make notes for the coaching staff. Whisenhunt was also pleased to see improvement in Leinart's footwork in last week's minicamp.
"There is a misconception about Matt's level of development," Whisenhunt said. "We were doing some things offensively in the first five games last year where he was doing a good job. The only thing Matt has got to do is show some consistency and improvement."
That, and show he can hold off Warner in training camp come July and August.
"Everything revolves around the quarterback, so whoever is in there has got to keep getting better," James said. "We've shown this is an offensive team. With all the weapons and everything, Matt should be all right. It all revolves around Matt.
"The bottom line, the talent is here to win – period."