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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Matt Leinart sat at a crowded table in a trendy steakhouse late Sunday night, sipping a glass of sauvignon blanc with a faraway look in his eyes. The young passer was frazzled and forlorn, and not just because of the atrocious synthesized music blaring in the background.
As a scrawny Owen Wilson lookalike warbled through a cover of Sugar Ray’s "Fly" a few feet away while Scottsdale's beautiful people mingled around him, the Arizona Cardinals' starting quarterback in name only struggled to relish one of the franchise's more uplifting victories in recent memory.
Having given way to backup Kurt Warner for much of the Cards' 21-14 upset of the previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, Leinart's day had been filled with bitterness, frustration and prideful defiance. Now, as he finished his meal at City Hall steakhouse, there was only detached bewilderment.
"I just want them to ride or die with me," Leinart said softly of 2-2 Arizona. "If I'm the franchise quarterback, play me and let me stumble, because I'll fight through it, and that will help me and our team in the long run. I know coaches want to win now, and I guess they have their reasons. But I don't understand it, and this switching back and forth is almost worse than getting benched."
In the next breath, Leinart went out of his way to praise Warner, his unlikely friend, hotel roommate and computer-Scrabble rival, and expressed his support for first-year Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, the man responsible for this counterintuitive tag-team of an arrangement. "The bottom line is doing whatever it takes to help this team," Leinart said, "and we won a very big game today, so I can't be mad."
Yet earlier, after sitting out much of the second and third quarters, Leinart's anger had momentarily overcome him. As he sat on the Arizona bench preparing to take the field with 11:33 remaining and the Cards holding a 14-7 lead, Leinart was approached by offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who began delivering a pep talk. Leinart snapped at Haley, with whom he has a good relationship, essentially telling him to get out of his face. Then the second-year quarterback rose, brushed past Haley and glared at Whisenhunt before taking the field.
"He reacted just the way I hoped he'd react," Whisenhunt said afterward. "He was mad, and he wanted to play. That's the sign of a competitor – of a guy who can be our franchise quarterback for a long time."
In the meantime, however, Leinart is suffering a crisis of confidence. Quarterback platoons can be pulled off sometimes in college, but in the pros such an arrangement is considered an invitation for disaster, and few are buying Whisenhunt's spin that he's merely using Warner because his familiarity with a specific “package” (the no-huddle, spread offense) is greater than the kid's.
In reality, this sticky situation has been brewing since training camp, when Leinart visibly struggled to learn the new coach's system, while Warner began bearing an uncanny resemblance to the out-of-nowhere sensation who won two regular season MVP awards, led the Rams to a pair of Super Bowls and became the most accurate passer in NFL history during a glorious run from 1999-2001.
Warner, 36, considered retirement last season after losing his job to Leinart, the 10th overall pick of the '06 draft. Back then, his lack of mobility and penchant for fumbling seemed unconquerable – but that was before Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm arrived. With Whisenhunt's grasp of offensive ingenuity and assistant head coach Grimm's demanding, effective transformation of a once pitiful offensive line, the Cards suddenly have a running game (Edgerrin James continued his revival Sunday with 77 yards on 21 carries) and the ability to protect a quarterback.
And guess what? When Warner has time, he can still sit back, speed through his progressions and deliver pinpoint passes to receivers in stride. The gloves he began wearing on both passing hands late last season have improved his ball-handling and restored his unflappable demeanor in the pocket.
Amid a hyped up atmosphere at University of Phoenix Stadium, with a team hell-bent on giving former Pittsburgh assistants Whisenhunt and Grimm a victory over the franchise that passed over both as head coaching candidates in favor of the equally impressive Mike Tomlin, Warner (14 of 21, 132 yards, one TD, no interceptions) was the voice of calm, repeatedly telling Arizona's offensive skill players to chill and "just go play football."
Says Warner: "I joke with Matt, 'Hey, I'm pretty good,' but that's part of this, too. It's a hard situation for him; if I were the starter, I'd be upset. As the backup, I have no complaints. All I can ask for is a chance to play every week. It's working, for now. We'll see how it plays out."
Leinart (7 of 14, 93 yards) has had trouble seeing the field and getting rid of the football for much of this young season, and against the Steelers his first three drives netted no points before he gave way to Warner. He thought he was done for the day – and, perhaps, for good – as Arizona took a seven-point lead with two huge, un-Cardinalesque plays: safety Adrian Wilson's end-zone interception of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on third-and-goal from the 2 with 48 seconds left in the third quarter, and rookie Steve Breaston's 73-yard punt return for touchdown (the franchise's first in 14 years) with 14:10 remaining in the game.
But after a Steelers punt gave Arizona the ball at its 18, Whisenhunt called his number, and Leinart hissed at Haley and returned with a vengeance. In the Cardinals' facility there is talk that his penchant for late-night socializing and his adjustment to fatherhood (he has an 11-month-old son, Cole, with ex-girlfriend Byrnn Cameron and spends Mondays and Tuesdays visiting with the child in the L.A. area) could be distracting a player who, in fairness, has impressed teammates with his work ethic.
One thing no one has questioned, however, is that Leinart has some gran cojones – remember his audible and perfect fade to Dwayne Jarrett on fourth-and-9 in South Bend? – and in that regard he and his coach are a perfect fit.
Sensing that the Steelers would be expecting a conservative approach when Leinart returned, Whisenhunt called an 'X-Go' pass to wideout Larry Fitzgerald (11 catches, 123 yards), who raced downfield and reached up to cradle Leinart's willowy, 38-yard pass. Later, on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers' 24, Whisenhunt stayed bold, foregoing the expected field-goal attempt for a quarterback sneak, which the big lefty converted. Five plays later James scored a 2-yard touchdown that gave the Cards a 21-7 lead.
So, to review: After shelving his starter for much of the game's midsection, Whisenhunt put his two most audacious offensive-play calls in the young passer's hands, and Leinart delivered.
What now? Can the coach keep messing with his quarterback of the future's emotions like this, or is a benching – and/or an estrangement – a disappointing defeat or two away?
"The whole thing is weird," says Roethlisberger, who admittedly is not a fan of Whisenhunt, his former offensive coordinator. "He sits Matt all that time, then puts him back in and has him throwing deep? It's just weird. I don't see how it can work. But that's just me."
Says Whisenhunt: "It's worked for us so far. A big part of that is because we have two guys that are unselfish football players. If we didn't have that, it could be problematic. But Matt's a tough guy, and this is going to help him become a better football player down the road."
As Leinart finished his dinner at City Hall Sunday, grimacing as Synthesizer Guy belted out Billy Joel's "Piano Man," he wasn't so in tune with Whisenhunt's thought process.
"I don't really know what the motive is, and it's tough rotating," Leinart said. "But I'll just keep working hard and try to do my part."
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Brett Favre's 421st career touchdown pass, the 16-yard slant to Greg Jennings which broke Dan Marino's all-time record, was a foregone conclusion. But the fact that Favre is making history while enjoying an 11th-hour career revival and carrying an otherwise pedestrian team to a 4-0 start has been a delicious surprise. After Favre's 344-yard passing day Sunday in a 23-16 victory over a Minnesota Vikings team that almost impossible to run against, it's fair to say that the 38-year-old's unbridled enthusiasm is contagious. How else can you explain the sight of punter Jon Ryan nimbly weaving his way through the Vikings' punt-coverage team on a third quarter fake punt that was Green Bay's longest ground gain to that point? More Cheesehead magic, please.
• Atari Bigby, who made the game-clinching interception for the Pack, will surely be followed into the league someday by playmakers like Nintendo Williams, Sega Jensen and PS3 Smithers III.
• There is breakaway speed and there is NFL go-the-distance speed, and then there is Devin Hester, who busted his seventh career return for touchdown in his 20th game. That gave the Bears a 20-17 lead against the Lions, who were busy scoring an NFL-record 34 points in the fourth quarter for a 37-27 victory over Chicago that reversed the trajectories of two NFC North teams. To put it in classic-rock terms, if David Bowie's "Panic In Detroit" was blaring at Ford Field Sunday, it would have been most appropriate in the visitors' locker room; Kiss' "Detroit Rock City" would have been ideal for the 3-1 home team.
• Speaking of scoring outbursts, the Chiefs scored nearly as many points (24) in the second half of their 30-16 victory over the Chargers than they had in their three previous games this season. Give some credit to quarterback Damon Huard for responding with his starting job on the line and some props to coach Herm Edwards, yet again, for rescuing a team from what seemed like certain doom. Kansas City (2-2) is now tied for first place in the AFC West, with Denver and Oakland, while San Diego (1-3) continues its out-of-control downward spiral.
• Yes, it's time to give some love to the Raiders as well: Daunte Culpepper, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for three more in a 35-17 victory against the Miami team that gave up on him last season, punctuated one of his scoring dashes by pointing to his surgically repaired right knee. He might as well have pointed to another part of his anatomy (get your minds out of the gutter: I'm talking about his heart). The Raiders, who ran for 299 yards – two-hundred-and-ninety-nine yards! – haven't shown this kind of spunk since their Super Bowl season five years ago, and 'Pep will only get better as he grows more comfortable in Lane Kiffin's offense.
• And how about a round of applause for yet another recently resurrected team, the Browns, who rolled over the Ravens and, were it not for that blocked field goal in Oakland the previous Sunday, could be sitting at 3-1. How? I don't know, but with Derek Anderson playing like this at quarterback and a bunch of hungry players stepping up, Cleveland has a chance to stay competitive.
• Osi Umenyiora, six sacks in one game? You are very, very good, and …
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• … Eagles left tackle Winston Justice, you are very, very unable to protect Donovan McNabb's blind side. That said, you are a backup, and your coaches are not without blame. You’re the guru, Andy Reid, but did you ever consider chipping to Justice's side with a tight end and/or keeping someone in the backfield to double-team Umenyiora? Just a thought, because what happened was truly an inJustice.
• "I'm worried," a Rams player told me Sunday after the team's 35-7 drubbing at Dallas that dropped St. Louis to 0-4. "I'm looking at our schedule, and I'm scared we might go 0-16." Other than that, things are looking up in The Lou, where a seemingly formidable offense has gone more than 30 consecutive drives without a touchdown. In our fantasy-obsessed football universe, this is a stark reminder that the unheralded fatties are the key to everything. The Rams' injury decimated offensive line can't protect quarterback Marc Bulger and his broken ribs, and coach Scott Linehan is reluctant to call pass patterns that require seven-step drops and which could open up the stagnant offense. It gets worse, Rams fans: Warner is coming to town with the Cardinals on Sunday (wife Brenda will be back in her old front-row seat in the Edward Jones Dome) to zip the ball around and remind y'all how good you once had it.
• Were Jay Cutler’s parents having a "competitive conversation" in the RCA Dome stands after their son's touchdown run, or did they just pick the most embarrassing possible time to have a full-on fight, with cameras rolling? If any flies on the wall out there have any insight, I would love to know.
• That every single member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers walked across the field to lend their support to Cadillac Williams after his brutal, season-ending knee injury tells you everything you need to know about how much respect the third-year runner has earned in his locker room. He came into the league running hard and has been perpetually beat up as a result, and he'll need a ton of courage and dedication to return from a torn patellar tendon. But I've got a feeling 'Lac will be back.
• Kyle Orton, time to start warming up in the bullpen. Is that what things have come to for the Bears? Hey, Jeff George lives in Indy; he could leave at the crack of dawn Wednesday and still make it to morning meetings. Just a thought.
• Hey, A.J. Smith, I forgot to mention one thing in last Monday's column Perhaps you shouldn't have run inside linebacker Donnie Edwards out of town with his former coach. And Donnie, how much were you smiling inside when you heard those fans at Qualcomm chanting "Marty, Marty" in the final minutes of your Chiefs' 30-16 victory over the Chargers? By the way, for those of you didn't get a chance to see Friday's column (delay of game: my bad), here's one potential replacement for Smith if and when Dean Spanos works up the guts to give him the boot.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND 1) Marta – where does the magic come from, and how many young Brazilians will be able to mimic those moves in the years to come?
2) LaDainian Tomlinson: 116 rushing yards in the first half, three carries in the third quarter. But hey, I'm just a sportswriter. Norv Turner has it all figured out.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
OK, NCAA, so you've got this replay rule designed to correct egregious wrongs, and one such correction (on DeSean Jackson's apparent touchdown catch at Arizona last season) cost Cal its first outright Pac-10 title in 48 years. Fine. But last Saturday, when the Bears visited the Oregon Ducks in a hotly contested Pac-10 showdown, kicker Jordan Kay attempted a 33-yard field goal early in the second half that went just over the left upright yet was signaled "no good" by a vision-challenged official, and there was no remedy for correcting the call because only questions about whether the ball went over the crossbar can be reviewed. Say WHAT? Who made that idiotic rule, and how is clearing a crossbar ever at issue in the first place? If anything, the rule should be the exact opposite, none of which will get the Bears their three points back in a game that went down to the wire and was half-a-yard away from overtime. … Wait, what am I ranting about? The Bears won! They’re No. 3 in the country, for the first time in, like, forever. They hadn't won in Eugene in 20 years and always lose games like that one, but the football gods are awesome and beneficent deities – even if the people who make the replay rules are morons.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL) … SOCCER-STYLE
"This type of thing is just why many of us just can't (and don't want to) get interested in soccer. Whether right or wrong, Hope (Solo)'s total running over of her coach was classless and inappropriate. Jim Rome said it the best – even Terrell Owens thought that lacked class and was all about 'me me me'!"
Santa Fe, N.M.
That's a typically good line by Rome and I don't totally disagree with it, but I believe the goalkeeper controversy and resulting fallout actually buoyed interest in women's soccer. And I'm all for that.
"Good stuff, Michael … I agree with everything said. … Brandi (Chastain) lacks objectivity toward Ryan, but still makes valid points … our game was a level below Brazil 's. … I love Julie Foudy and wish her leadership was still on the field. … she would make a great coach. … Would she accept the job or are her aspirations higher?"
Long Beach, Calif.
It's a great question and one I'll certainly ask. It's certainly possible Foudy will decide that her current responsibilities – saving the world, inspiring young people, raising a lovely young daughter, doing fantastic work as a TV commentator, keeping me amused on a constant basis – are enough to sustain her for the foreseeable future. It's also true that her many battles with the U.S. Soccer Federation on her team's behalf haven't especially endeared her to the powers that be. That said, if it could ever be worked out, I'd bet a year's worth of killer sushi dinners that Coach Foudy would be a smashing success.
"Coach Ryan made not only a bad, bad choice of goalie in the game v. Brazil, he showed his true colors by lashing out on Hope Solo instead of taking the heat he deserved. He cowardly deflected the aftermath of the defeat onto Solo instead of owning to his mistake and being man enough to handle the heat with maturity and grace. The loss is on his shoulders alone!"
In my opinion, benching Solo was hardly Ryan's sole mistake in this tournament. Rather, it's the one that drew attention to a comprehensively flawed approach.
"Is there anybody who can overturn a coach's (U.S. Women's Soccer) decision to pull a player in a critical game?"
West Dundee, Ill.
Only one person: Chargers general manager A.J. Smith.
"The only one who should be fired, separated from the team is that moron idiot we have as coach of the USA woman's national team. Hope Solo just reacted out of dismal frustration. At the end of the game, she watched hopelessly at the bench to see her team humiliated at the field. Now she is the villain. Ryan is lucky he lives in the USA. In another country, he wouldn't be able to return with the team."
New York, N.Y.
I will say this: In another country, Ryan would have been the former coach of the national team by the time this column posts.
"I had not seen such stupid coaching of a U.S. soccer team in a World Cup by current 'coach' Greg Ryan of the women's team since the 1998 Men's World Cup when 'coach' Steve Sampson benched quite a few veterans, so that he could give the rookies some 'playing experience' During a World Cup. Stupid is as Stupid Does!"
I think you're being a bit unfair to Sampson – and that's saying something.
"It's not so much a question as a comment. I think it is really sad that Hope had worked so hard for the position that the U.S. got to and when it was the most important game, she gets sat out. I think anyone of the players would have been upset in the same situation. Maybe she didn't handle it in what is considered the right way, but that I don't think that was what affected the team I think Ryan misplayed things and in more than one (instance). I think Briana (Scurry) did as good a job as she could for coming in cold. But I think Hope is right when she said Ryan was wrong. And don't think he should be brought back next year. The rest of the team played great for what they had to work with. Thank you."
It is definitely sad, but it sounds like her teammates, as much as Ryan, were responsible for her banishment.
"Thank you for the article regarding the Women's U. S. National Team! It is refreshing to see that the team had received coverage … even if it comes during somewhat of a controversial time. I was so relieved to hear the comments of Chastain and Foudy. I couldn't agree more with Foudy regarding Hope Solo's selfish rant. I too, 'felt sick' as I was watching her speak to ESPN. I am disappointed that despite the unfortunate circumstances, Solo did not have the class to lose gracefully and keep her team and country in mind when speaking to the media. She is the epitome of poor sportsmanship and what it means to be 'entitled.' What a disappointment. It is unfortunate that our young athletes were shown such a poor example! Shame on her! Hopefully, Coach Ryan will make some better decisions and the team can overcome its adversity in time for (Sunday's) game!"
Let's end this discussion on a happy note: U.S. 4, Norway 1, the great Abby Wambach taking no crap.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK