- Graham Bensinger, Contributing Writer, ESPN.com
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Editor's note: Each week during the season Graham Bensinger will be sitting down with high-profile NFL figures for ESPN.com's Weekly Conversation.
Graham Bensinger: Matt, you win two National Championships at USC. You go from a team where the expectation is you'll win to a franchise, where, based on its history, it's understood you'll lose. What was that like for you?
Matt Leinart: (laughs) It's obviously different. At USC we did something that's very rare, but that's college and this is the pro game. It's tough to win every single football game. For me, my thing is just to come in and bring the attitude that I had in college, to absorb the game, learn from the vets, and learn from all of the guys. I definitely think the momentum is on the upswing. We don't consider ourselves a losing franchise.
Bensinger: Kurt, how have you seen that mentality change since you've been here?
Kurt Warner: We're still fighting that battle. We want to get to a point where we believe, like Matt in college, like places where I've been, that you're going to win every time you step between those lines. It doesn't matter who you play, where they were last year, where they were last week -- you're going to find a way to win. That's what we're trying to build upon. We've got so much talent here. We've got so many things in place. We need to gain that confidence where we believe, no matter what, that we're going to win.
Just like you asked Matt: How is it going from that to this Your mentality doesn't change one bit. I expect to win every time I step on that field. Matt does the same. We have a number of guys that are the same way. We just need to take everybody to that point. We need to get everybody to believe that when we go to work on Monday, we're going to work to win that next Sunday. Bottom line, no matter what, no matter if five turnovers, no matter if everything goes against us, we're still going to find a way to win.
Bensinger: Matt, how have you seen that develop since you've been here? Because clearly the talent has improved
Leinart: Obviously with the signing of Edge [Edgerrin James] you have the upbeat attitude. I wasn't here before so I didn't really understand what it was like. Just by coming in and speaking for all of the rookies -- the feeling is upbeat. Edge has brought this attitude, Kurt, all the veterans, we expect to win now. It's about building that confidence, believing in ourselves, and believing in the team that every time we do step onto the field we are going to win. I think with the stadium and the fan support -- the preseason games were unbelievable. All that behind us, it's like: Let's do this!
Bensinger: Matt, I want to take you back to draft week. What was that like for you?
Leinart: (laughs) It was pretty miserable, actually. I'd say it was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was stressful, definitely stressful. If I could do it all over again, I would probably sit at my house and watch the draft in my comfort zone with family and friends. It was a great experience. I think looking into the future, ten years from now, when I say I got to go to New York for the draft, in that arena [Radio City Music Hall], with those guys, it was an unbelievable thing. It's just that nothing ever happens how you want it to.
Warner: Hey, I'd have taken it. I would have loved to have been there even if I fell to 10, 20, 30…
Warner: It doesn't matter ... I would have loved to have been there.
Bensinger: Matt, I talked to Leigh Steinberg. He said, if you would have stayed with him, you would have been the third overall pick in the draft. What do you say to that?
Leinart: Oh, man. ... That's tough. I just did what was best for myself and my family at the time. It's a tough business, but I don't regret that decision. People can say whatever they want.
Is that the truth or is it all talk?
Leinart: Truthfully I don't think it has anything to do with the agent. I think the team went in the direction they wanted to go and I came to Arizona. I'd rather be here than any other place.
Bensinger: Kurt, clearly you don't want to pass on a player like Leinart in the draft. But you've won two MVPs, you had just signed a contract extension, what's going through your head when the Cardinals draft Matt?
Warner: We'd actually talked about it beforehand. I understood our situation. I understood where I stood with the organization. Also, like you said, it's hard to pass on a guy with extreme talent. A guy that's had the success Matt's had and a position that we need. Okay, maybe we don't need a starting QB this year or next year, but in the short term -- they know my career isn't going to last 10 more years. In the short term, this organization is going to need a QB to take over and to run with it. It didn't bother me one bit. I understood where they were coming from. I understood what Matt brought to the table and I'm excited for our team. I think Matt makes us a better football team.
For me to be selfish and say well that's my position, so now I'm going to pout or worry about it -- not at all. So if Matt needs to play, and I hope he doesn't for at least three more years, we're going to be in good hands. I know what he brings to the table, I know the mentality that he's had, and I know the success that he's had. That's how you have to look at these situations. This is about a team. I want to win and I want to win again. I want to be the starting QB, sure, but I want us to have everything in place for us to be a successful team no matter the situation.
Bensinger: If you have a solid season, the Cardinals make the playoffs, and then Coach Green comes to you in the offseason and says, "You know, I'd like you to backup Matt next year." To what extent would you be at peace with that?
Warner: (laughs) Probably not much peace at all I want to play. I signed three years to play three more years. I think I have a lot left. I think I can still win and still play at a high level in this business. There wouldn't be a whole lot of peace at all from the standpoint of my competitiveness and wanting to play. If that situation arose, I would have to deal with it at that time whether I wanted to make that choice, whether I wanted to go a different route, I don't know. I'm not worried about that. Right now, I want to win. I want to play well. I believe, as long as I continue to play well, the Cardinals are going to honor the three years they gave me. If something happens along the way, and Matt takes over, and we run with it from there, then we deal with it. Right now, my goal and my objective is to play well for three years and to help this team win a championship. Then, we go from there.
Bensinger: Matt, what's Kurt most helped you with?
Leinart: The way I look at it, just as I did with Carson [Palmer] at USC, I always just kind of sit back. I don't talk that much, but I kind of just watch how he handles himself on and off the field. Obviously he's been around this game way longer than I have. As far as football, just in the preseason, getting to play those games and coming off every series he's asking me why I went here with the ball or what did I see on this end. Just little things, talking like that helps me tremendously. Watching him practice, watching where he goes with the balls and reads like that. For me, it's just a lot of mental reps. He's been a big help.
Bensinger: Kurt, what have you most tried to help Matt with?
Warner: It's one of those situations where you never try to force anything on anyone. Matt has done a tremendous job. He's picked things up well. The one thing I always do when I've worked with young QBs is to let them know early I'm here if they want or need anything. If I have suggestions, I kind of just throw them out there. I don't run to them and say you're wrong, you should have done this. Hey, I'm here to help. I'm here to share any knowledge that I have. Anything that I did on the field -- ask me questions about. Anything that I see that maybe I would have done a little different than Matt, I'll come over and say with this situation you might be better served to go here or see it this way.
I just try to let him know I'm here. If you want to ask me a million questions, I'll answer a million questions. If you want to just watch, just watch. If I can share anything with you, I'm happy to do that. That's really my approach. I don't want to throw it in their face, let them know I know everything, and am going to tell you what to do in every situation. I'm hoping whatever they want from me -- whether that's on the field, off the field -- whatever I can do.
Bensinger: Matt, you're smiling?
Leinart: Today, he was getting a little frustrated and I was going to ask him something and I'm like, 'oh', and I turned around and walked away. I think I actually started to ask him something and I could see it in his face so I'm like 'I'll stop'
Bensinger: Matt, watching from the sideline or playing in your first season -- what benefits a rookie QB more?
Leinart: We all want to play. I come in and I want to play. We're all competitive and we all want to compete to make each other better. In all honesty, I think I'm in the best situation possible of any rookie QB, especially this year. I get a chance to learn from him [Kurt], who's been NFL MVP, Super Bowl MVP, Super Bowl champion He's still got a few years. I just want to learn everything I can and help the team. For me, obviously we all want to play, but right now it's best for me to sit there holding that clipboard and to keep learning. If I get reps here and there, if I get a chance to get in there, I just want to be able to play at that high level that he does.
Bensinger: Kurt, how much do you think sitting on the sideline helps prior to getting out into live NFL game action?
Warner: I think it's huge. Everyone wants to look at the football side of it. I think sitting can help from a football standpoint, but I think you also have to get acclimated to the NFL. You have to get acclimated to being a starting QB in the NFL to the notoriety that Matt is going to enjoy and has enjoyed. The NFL is a different level to be able to carry yourself and all the scrutiny, the media scrutiny I think a year, a couple years where you can just get comfortable in your situation outside of the football field is very important.
You can handle yourself. You're confident with yourself. You're not thrown into a situation where you know all eyes are on you and then maybe you struggle a bit and now there's even more pressure because you're trying to live up to a lot of things that you don't need to be worried about. I've seen a lot of QBs that have benefited from that year, that two years sitting. Being able to not only learn the game, but learn what it's about to be in the NFL. When they get in there, they're so comfortable being an NFL player and everything that comes with it, the media stuff that comes with it that they can just relax and play football.
I think you've seen more guys that have sat and come in and had better careers than the guys that are thrown in. So much hits those guys so quickly and they struggle. I think it's been documented over the years, the number of No. 1 picks at QB that have made it. It's about 50/50. A lot of it is because the guys are thrown in and asked to deal with so much, so much scrutiny early, that it affects their confidence.
Bensinger: Matt, when you were drafted, did you feel that way initially or did it take time for you to realize that?
Leinart: The NFL is a whole different level, but for me, in college, I felt like I dealt with the most scrutiny there could ever be in that fishbowl in L.A. I dealt with everything on and off the field even if it was out of my control.
Warner: Cause you won all the time
Leinart: That's true (laughs) but like Kurt said, it is documented that if you're forced to play right away it's going to be a tougher transition for you. It's still been a tough transition for me and I'm not really doing too much out there right now. I feel way better about my situation than going to a team where I was forced to play right away and kind of having to learn the hard way.
Bensinger: But how do you continue this quick progression which you clearly seem to be on when all of the sudden the live game action just comes to a halt?
Leinart: You just got to prepare, got to study, the mental reps, pay attention in practice, and when you're called upon you have to be ready to play. Other guys on the team are counting on you to play even if you don't get a single rep in practice. That's the way it is.
Bensinger: Kurt, how nice is it to have Edgerrin James?
Warner: It's going to be great, but the bottom line is we still have to be able to run the ball. We still have to force people to give us the coverage we want on the outside. Last year, we were struggling a lot playing against Cover 2 zones all day long. We didn't earn enough respect for teams to create the matchups that we wanted. That's what we think Edge is going to be able to bring to the table. He's going to be tremendous in the red zone, being able to score touchdowns and not having to throw. He's going to be awesome in regards to forcing teams to come down to stop him. We know about the guys [receivers] we have on the outsides. If you put them in one-on-one situations instead of in zone defenses, I think they'll be even more explosive. We're extremely excited about what Edge brings to the table and we couldn't be happier to have a guy like that in our backfield.
Bensinger: Matt, having done your draft diary with you, I know you like to keep your private life private and don't like people invading it. I certainly respect that. What's it like knowing you're going to be a father?
Leinart: It's exciting. It's very exciting. It's still stuff that I like to keep to myself, but just to comment on that I'm very excited about it. Obviously, you look at it, it may not be the ideal situation, but for me personally it's going to bring the biggest joy to my life. To have a baby running around and to be able to play catch -- Kurt knows what it's like.
Warner: (laughs) That's probably where I'm going to be getting all the questions. Not about football, but it's going to be about him
Leinart: (laughs) Yeah, cause I told him the other day I'm like 'Kurt, I got a crib the other day' I get all excited about it. I'm still a kid, but obviously I've got to grow up a little bit. That's just my goal to be the best dad I can.
Bensinger: Kurt, as a father, what advice would you offer Matt?
Warner: That's the best thing. He just wants to be a good father. He wants to love his child. That's what my wife and I always say. You can give him all kinds of stuff, but the greatest gift you can give him is just to love him all the time no matter what happens. That's probably the only advice I could give. All kids are different. You have to deal with them differently. Love them all the time. Shower them with love and you'll be just fine.
Bensinger: Matt, I know you were made fun of some growing up. The one quality you would most want to instill in your child growing up would be what?
Leinart: That's a good question ...
Warner: That is a good question.
Leinart: What I went through when I was born was a defect in my eye. I had that fat stage along with the cross-eyedness. (laughs) It was tough. All my parents used to tell me was to be strong and be who you are. That's just what I'm going to tell my kids. Don't ever listen to anyone else. Be who you are. Be strong. That's the way I'm going to raise them. I'm going to raise them to treat everyone the same. That's how I dealt with my thing when I was younger and now.
Graham Bensinger a regular contributor to ESPN.com.Visit his website at: TheGBShow.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
6hEric D. Williams
1dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo