Commentary

Leinart understanding life as understudy

Matt Leinart's back in the championship spotlight -- but not in the way he imagined when he was the 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft, Jeffri Chadiha writes.

Originally Published: January 27, 2009
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Matt LeinartGene Lower/Getty ImagesAll during Super Bowl week, Matt Leinart (7) will be reminded that he is at least another season away from being the Cardinals' starting quarterback. The man who has the job Leinart wants, Kurt Warner, preaches patience.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Arizona Cardinals backup quarterback Matt Leinart knew the tough questions were coming -- again. While his more established teammates mugged for the cameras and joked with reporters during Tuesday's media day for Super Bowl XLIII, Leinart stood under a fake palm tree in a crowded corner of Raymond James Stadium, quietly explaining how it might feel to be on the bench for the biggest game of his life.

"To be a part of the Super Bowl is great," Leinart said. "If you had told me that I'd be in the Super Bowl when I was drafted, I would've said that's great. I'd also love to be back someday -- as a starter."

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As much as Leinart tries to minimize this moment, there's no way he can be as comfortable with this situation as he says he is. After all, he's about to spend the next few days being reminded constantly that he's been failing at his job with the Cardinals. He was supposed to be the franchise's savior when he was selected 10th overall in the 2006 draft. Three years later, he still has no idea if or when he'll ever be able to replace Kurt Warner as the team's starting quarterback.

Seriously, it's not like the Cardinals are going to let Warner just walk away when his contract expires after this season. It's highly plausible that they'll re-sign him to some sort of short-term deal that will keep him under center for at least a couple of more years. That means Leinart -- who still has three years left on his current deal -- would have to develop even more patience than he's already shown. That, by the way, would be a hard task for anybody.

But that is the plight that Leinart has created for himself. So far, he's willing to accept that all he can do is keep working until his opportunity arises again.

"It's not that I want to prove people wrong, even though I'm sure there are some people who think I just can't play," he said. "I just want to be successful."

There are plenty of reasons to think Leinart still can reach that goal. For one thing, we still haven't seen a full body of work from him. He started 11 games as a rookie and flashed some potential during that 2006 season. Then he started splitting time with Warner early in 2007 before a broken collarbone sidelined Leinart for the final 11 games of that campaign. This season, Leinart had another shot at claiming the job. He played so poorly during the preseason that the decision to start Warner became an easy one for coach Ken Whisenhunt.

So, yes, it's not like Leinart hasn't had a fair shot at the job. But it's also important to note that we haven't seen what he can do after going through all the humbling experiences he's faced lately. See, that's the thing about Leinart. Everybody around him keeps mentioning how much he's grown up over the past few years and how that maturity could benefit him well in the future.

Remember, this was a cocky kid who left USC with two national championships, one Heisman Trophy and no clue of how difficult his life would be with one of the NFL's worst franchises. But now coaches say Leinart studies the game better. He spends more time at the facility, both after practice and in the offseason. He's even training harder in the weight room, where coaches have noticed his increased interest in improving his strength.

In other words, whatever pouting Leinart did happened behind closed doors. He wanted his teammates to see that he wouldn't be a distraction and he wasn't going to be a bust.

"You can tell he's serious about his job," said Cardinals general manager Rod Graves. "He's reached a point where he's anxious to get that monkey off his back as far as not playing. I can just tell that he's learned a lot about what it takes to prepare at this level."

[+] EnlargeLeinart, Haley, Warner, and Whisenhunt
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMatt Leinart (left) watches as Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley (red sweater), head coach Ken Whisenhunt and starting quarterback Kurt Warner discuss strategy.
Leinart can even see that growth in himself. He knows there's an undeniable value to watching how Warner handles the job. Leinart also realizes he still has a shot at a long future in this league and this kind of adversity might help him later in life.

As he said, "I won't say that I knew everything when I was coming out of college, but I was used to having success. Once you start struggling, you realize [playing in the NFL] is a lot harder than you thought it would be."

The question for Leinart now is whether he can handle more uncertainty in the near future. Graves is talking constantly with Leinart and the player's agent, Tom Condon. Graves wants Leinart to remain optimistic about his opportunities in Arizona. But the Cardinals can't guarantee anything. This is a franchise that spent decades as one of the longest running jokes in the league. It would like to enjoy this prosperity for as long as it can.

That's why you aren't likely to see the kind of situation in Arizona that occurred a few years back in San Diego (where Philip Rivers eventually replaced Drew Brees) or earlier this season in Green Bay (where the Packers wanted to get Aaron Rodgers on the field despite the awkward presence of Brett Favre).

"You make the decision in the right perspective," Graves said. "But you don't do it at the risk of not being a successful team."

In other words, Leinart had better brace himself for more frustration. As Warner said: "What I've told Matt is to be patient and prepared so he can seize his opportunity when it comes. I waited until I was 28 to get a starting job in the NFL and my career turned out all right. So he's way ahead of the curve."

Being ahead of the curve is one thing. Leinart's problem -- and it's one that won't vanish anytime soon -- is that he really doesn't have any idea where this current road is taking him.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.

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