Leinart slipped to 10th in the draft in April despite going 37-2 as a starter at USC and leading the Trojans to two national titles. He was expected to spend his rookie season learning from Warner, but with Arizona playing poorly under the veteran quarterback, coach Dennis Green decided to make the switch.
“This was not our intention. It’s not what we wanted,” Green said, “but we’re 1-3 and just so many turnovers have brought it on.”
The Cardinals fell to 1-3 last week with a 32-10 loss at Atlanta. Leinart made his NFL debut in the contest, going 5-of-8 for 49 yards with an interception and a lost fumble.
Warner was pulled after completing 11 of 20 passes for 128 yards with one interception and two fumbles. He has thrown five interceptions this season and fumbled 10 times, losing three.
Leinart inherits an offense that ranks 24th in the NFL, 30th in rushing.
“What I want to try to do is not cram everything in and try to do too much,” he said. “I’m comfortable with what I’m doing. Really, football is obviously studying your opponent and knowing what you’re going to do, but really just playing, just going out there thinking and playing football.”
Leinart’s ability to run could help the Cardinals, who have given up 13 sacks—tied for second-most in the NFC—and have yet to get a dominant performance from running back Edgerrin James.
Signed to a four-year, $30 million deal in the offseason, James has rushed for just 272 yards and two touchdowns while averaging a career-low 3.1 yards per carry. He had only 41 yards on 20 carries against the Falcons last week.
“I think (the offensive linemen) are going to be fine,” Leinart said. “I think we just need leadership out there and hopefully I can come in there and just kind of bring a spark. Those guys have talent. We’ve struggled as an offense, and that’s on everybody. That’s not just on those guys. I know that they’re going to be fine. I have faith in them, and I think they have faith in me.
“And I think we’re going to see that this Sunday.”
Leinart’s first start comes against a Kansas City team that is ranked third in the NFL in total defense, allowing 239.7 yards per game.
“They use a lot of different fronts,” Green said. “They’ve got an outstanding defensive staff and they like to give you a lot of confusion, so he’s got to make sure he doesn’t always bite on what he thinks he sees.
“And we’ll do the best we can to try to create an atmosphere where he can go out and let some other guys make some plays, too. It’s not all on his shoulders.”
The Cardinals can only hope Leinart performs as well as Damon Huard has since he replaced the injured Trent Green for the Chiefs (1-2). Huard has completed 71.2 percent of his passes (47-for-66) for 481 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in place of Green, who suffered a severe concussion in the season opener.
Huard completed 18 of 23 passes for 208 yards with two touchdowns in a 41-0 win over San Francisco last Sunday. It was Kansas City’s first shutout since its last meeting with Arizona, a 49-0 home victory on Dec. 1, 2002.
“What a great veteran offensive line,” Huard said. “There are so many guys that make my job easy. And our defense—are you kidding me?”
Kansas City held the 49ers to 165 total yards, including just 72 passing, forced four turnovers and registered five sacks. The Chiefs haven’t allowed a touchdown in their last 10 quarters.
First-year coach Herman Edwards promised to improve Kansas City’s defense this season, and while he likes what he sees so far, he still thinks the unit has a long way to go.
“They understand they’ve got to stay on this pace now,” Edwards said. “They can’t just go three games and then go ‘OK.’ We haven’t arrived yet, not by any stretch of the imagination. We’re still a work in progress like I keep saying.”
Edwards said the Chiefs wouldn’t prepare differently this week with Leinart starting.
“You look at what they try and do offensively and I think the quarterback is one part of it, but you still have to play in the pieces of what they have and they surround him as a quarterback with some talented guys that can make plays offensively,” he said.
“I think that Matt is a quick study, he understands that. He doesn’t have a lot of playing time in the NFL, I think every time he goes on the field he gains more confidence in himself of playing at this level.”