Leinart relegated to spectator status

TAMPA, Fla. – Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart stood at Raymond James Stadium on Tuesday, engulfed in a circle of cameras and microphones, talking pop culture with “Access Hollywood.” He waxed on Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and the Jonas Brothers, and revealed that in a movie about himself, he’d prefer to be played by Ryan Reynolds.

At various points, Leinart hoisted a digital camera of his own, recording himself being recorded by the rest of the world. And had this not been Super Bowl media day, the mushroom cloud of criticism over the moment would have wiped the state of Florida off the map.

This is Matt Leinart’s life. And it’s not exactly what he thought it would be.

It’s what happens when you struggle to live up to your billing as a top draft pick, lose your starting job to Kurt Warner, and watch your hot tub pictures become the stuff of internet legend. Your margin for error evaporates. You endure interviews where you are so analyzed that you’re just a couple of steps short from being asked to take a Rorschach Test. And you realize that maybe, just maybe, this whole NFL thing wasn’t going to be nearly as easy as it looked.

Leinart admitted precisely that on Tuesday, reaching his first Super Bowl but seeing another quarterback – Warner – play the lead role. And knowing that same player might keep him on the bench for the foreseeable future – depending on a new contract Warner will likely seek (and likely will get) following Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers – Leinart’s future as an NFL starter is ambiguous as ever three years into his own six-year deal.

“The fact that I didn’t play this year happened for a reason,” Leinart said. “No one knows why, but I think in the future, we’ll all be able to sit back and say, OK, now I know why.

“That’s kind of my philosophy on life. Things fall into place the way they’re supposed to. You’ve got to kind of roll with them and accept them.”

What the former Heisman Trophy winner had to accept was not only losing his job to Warner, but watching the veteran quarterback play at a Pro Bowl level, ignite a Super Bowl run and become arguably the best story of these playoffs. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the story of Leinart’s former college backup Matt Cassel, who went from never starting in college to becoming a league darling while filling in for Tom Brady this season in New England.

Leinart doesn’t begrudge Cassel his success. And he genuinely has maintained a good relationship with Warner. But for a player who still has enough of his old swagger to believe he could have piloted this Super Bowl run, it’s been an otherworldly test in confidence and patience.

“Having a lot of success in college and getting to the NFL and then [it] not going the way you planned it to be is definitely a humbling experience, for sure,” said Leinart, who appeared in four games this season. “It’s humbled me now just to realize how hard it is to get here and to be successful and to play.”

Leinart doesn’t question his talent, nor does he doubt that he’ll have a long career in this league. But he acknowledges the obstacles he’s faced and his need to overcome them.

“I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made some mistakes the last three or four years, just like everyone else has. It just so happened mine was more magnified,” he said. “I’ve definitely grown up a lot. But I’ve always been a hard worker. I’ve always been a football player first, no matter what. … I know a lot of people think I can’t play or whatever. I do take that as motivation. I just want to get my opportunity again and my chance.”

Undoubtedly, he will. Whether that happens in Arizona remains to be seen. Despite recent bluster from Warner’s agent about testing the free agent market come Feb. 27, all indications are that he’ll be the quarterback of this franchise next season and beyond. That means Leinart will be a highly paid backup, and that his next best chance to start may be via trade (an unlikely prospect at this point), or like Cassel, an injury.

Until that happens, Leinart is in store for more of the same. More clipboard duty. More studying Warner’s weekly approach. And more honing of a game that, frankly, needed polish.

“I can honestly say I think he’s learned to approach the game differently, from how he studies the game, how he studies the opponents, how he prepares – things of that nature,” Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. “He had come from a program where he was highly successful, and I think Matt needed to learn how to prepare for an NFL environment. … We’ve noticed a maturity that has come about through him.”

Certainly that was a characteristic questioned in Leinart heading into the 2006 NFL draft, as personnel types wondered whether he was more in love with the glow of the spotlight than the game itself. A source familiar with Leinart’s pre-draft preparation said it got so bad at one point that Leinart’s former agent, Leigh Steinberg, clashed with the quarterback’s marketing team at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) because he felt they were dominating his time with “Hollywood” promotion rather than allowing for serious football preparation

And in some ways, that Hollywood perception has never really changed.

As Leinart failed to grab hold of a starting job the last three years – despite being given several good opportunities – the labels began to cement themselves. Some of the Arizona media wondered whether he was serious enough to be a franchise quarterback, and pictures of Leinart partying fueled the negative perception last offseason.

Even now, as if to say “I told you so,” some personnel men who gave Leinart less-than-favorable reviews are quick to hold up past grievances as evidence. One high-ranking front-office man in the NFC recalled watching Leinart “goofing off” leading up to his passing session at USC’s pro day, forcing his NFL audience to wait around for the workout.

An AFC general manager suggested it was that lack of seriousness that manifested itself in Leinart’s current situation, drawing a parallel between Vince Young losing his job to 36-year old Kerry Collins and Leinart falling behind Warner.

“Those [situations] aren’t a coincidence,” he said. “You have two very similar backgrounds in terms of the success they had [in college] and how they were treated and how ready they were to work. … They ran into guys who hadn’t been given anything in a long time. You’re talking about all kinds of adversity in their careers. But their thing was ‘I know what I have to do to win games and prepare and hang on at this level.’ [Leinart and Young] had no idea about those things.”

Photo Leinart, left, congratulates Warner after a TD vs. Philly in NFC title game.
(Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo)

But the Cardinals organization insists Leinart has grown over the past three seasons – particularly in recent months. Graves said the quarterback’s study habits, workouts and even his interactions with his coaches have grown by leaps and bounds as he’s watched Warner this season.

“He’s gotten to the point now where he’s so anxious to sort of get that monkey off his back,” Graves said. “Because there’s some people in some circles that questioned whether or not he was the top-rated quarterback that we thought he would be.”

Even Leinart admits that he’s been humbled. He was a player who has always been the star – from his time in high school at Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) to his first start at USC, when he threw a touchdown on his first pass against a No. 1 ranked Auburn team. But all of that has been thrust into question on the NFL level.

“I wouldn’t say I thought I knew everything, by any means, going into the NFL,” Leinart said. “But you just have so much success [in college] that that’s what you’re kind of used to. Then you go in and you kind of struggle a little bit. You realize, OK, this is a lot harder than I thought – I didn’t know this and maybe I thought I knew this. That’s how you learn.”

He says it like he believes it. And to be fair, he wouldn’t be the first “star” college quarterback to make good on his potential a little later than expected. It wasn’t long ago that NFL pundits had written off Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers as a bust, despite an insistence from inside the franchise that Rodgers had spent three years behind Brett Favre maturing and tweaking his game. Once Rodgers finally got his shot, his physique and arm strength and maturity were light years beyond what he had displayed when he was drafted.

Could Leinart pull the same trick? He believes it. The Cardinals believe it. And the guy who beat him out for a starting job believes it, too.

“I can definitely understand that frustration, because I’ve been there,” Warner said. “I’ve been the guy looking from the outside in, just hoping and waiting for that opportunity. The one thing that I always tell Matt is stay patient, and utilize every single opportunity that you get, so when the time comes, you’re ready to succeed.

“I didn’t start my first game in the NFL until I was 28 years old, and my career has turned out pretty good. He’s got a few years yet before he reaches that age.”