The year was 2006. A young stud college quarterback named Matt Leinart was tip-toeing through the tulips, coming off a season in which the University of Southern California went for a second consecutive 12-0 regular season and narrowly lost in the BCS title game. Leinart was graduating, concluding a college career that included a BCS national championship and a Heisman trophy.
Now he was ready for the big-time. He entered the 2006 NFL draft as one of the top prospects, ultimately being drafted tenth overall by the Arizona Cardinals, a team without a strong quarterback presence. He would be given the chance to flourish and continue his career trajectory as a brightening star. Ah ... dreams, how fleeting and stupid they are.
Things in Arizona started off on the wrong foot, with perhaps a bad omen. Leinart and the Cardinals became embroiled in a lengthy holdout regarding his contract. Ultimately, Matt signed a six-year, $51 million deal, but he was the last draft pick to sign that year and coach Dennis Green was said to have lost patience with Leinart by the time the deal was done.
His rookie season was uneven, but included passing for 405 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, setting a rookie record. He started his second NFL season as the starter, ahead of then-washed-up but now-future-Hall-of-Fame QB Kurt Warner. But more shaky play led to Warner's eventual insertion as a situational quarterback, until a broken collarbone ended Leinart's season and Warner took over the starting job permanently, culminating in the team's recent success.
During a 9-7 Super Bowl season and the following 10-6 season (with another playoff victory), Leinart sat patiently behind Kurt Warner, watching and learning, saying and doing all the right things. Leinart could have asked for a trade. He could have urged the team to send him somewhere where he'd have an immediate chance to play, possibly to start. Instead, he patiently wasted two years of his career playing the apprentice, waiting for the chance to prove his worth to the team that drafted him.
Despite the Cardinals' success, Warner was taking a beating and that, combined with the time away from his family, had him seriously considering retiring. Leinart knew his time to finally start again was coming soon.
The Cardinals and head coach Ken Whisenhunt knew this, as well. Throughout Leinart's apprenticeship, Whisenhunt praised Leinart's increased maturity and patience and gave the impression that once Warner retired -- which he eventually did after the 2009-2010 season -- Leinart would be given his fair shot to lead the team into the future -- at least the immediate future before his back-loaded contract bonuses kicked in and made his cap number unmanageable.
And so the team entered this offseason, with Leinart the heir apparent at the starting position and newly-signed backup Derek Anderson "competing" for the job -- though many felt the competition was more of a formality, given Leinart's long history with the team and Anderson's previous poor season with the Cleveland Browns.
But time has a way of changing things, violently and surprisingly. With OTAs, training camp, and three preseason games in the bag, the Cardinals are now faced with a mess mostly of their own device. Leinart has been dethroned, Anderson ascended, and the team is now looking to offload their once-franchise quarterback. Anderson, backed by two rookies in Max Hall and John Skelton, will march the Cardinals forward into a future that's even murkier than initially anticipated after Warner hung up his helmet.
What could have changed over the course of a couple of months to make Whisenhunt and the team sour so much on Matt Leinart? Did anything change?
Logic dictates that either there was a recent, determining incident between Leinart and the team, or the coaching staff knew all along Matt was not their man.
There are no real details yet about what may have occurred; the coaching staff remains coy about what's transpired. It appears on the surface that Whisenhunt merely wanted to shake up an anemic offense by starting Anderson in the now infamous third preseason game against the Chicago Bears. Since then, however, Leinart has definitely not done himself any favors by airing his dirty laundry to the media, speaking publically about his frustrations rather than taking them directly to his coach, behind closed doors.
But if the team knew all along that he was not their man, why did they not make a move this offseason instead of yanking him along? Both parties appear to share some blame here.
Regardless, it seems the once-promising relationship between Leinart and the Cardinals is now over. The question of if the team will keep Leinart appears to have shifted to when the team will cut or move him.
Has the maelstrom in Arizona basically destroyed Matt Leinart's chance to start in the NFL (presuming he ever had a shot)? Have the Cardinals "tainted" him?
Not only was he convinced to sit and wait patiently on the sidelines for two seasons behind Warner -- admittedly, this is a bit of presumption, but one would assume Leinart discussed the situation with his coaches, gauging their interest in him as a starting quarterback once Kurt stepped aside -- but now the team has basically destroyed any value Leinart had by essentially saying, "You're not even good enough to secure a starting job over Derek Anderson, who was basically shunned out of Cleveland."
It's rumored that about the only thing the Cardinals would get for Leinart in trade is a late round draft pick. For a former top ten pick. For a Heisman Trophy and national championship winner. It's a liquidation sale. It's a cut-your-damn-losses maneuver at this point.
What team is going to take a chance on him now, at least as a starter? He was never given any real burn in the regular season to show what he could do, to demonstrate all he'd learned from the great Kurt Warner.
And now all that's left are assumptions and perceptions, and they're career killers:
"We understand Matt Leinart isn't better than Kurt Warner, one of the best quarterbacks of this decade, but he's not even better than Derek Anderson, he of the 15.1 QB rating?"
"Ken Whisenhunt seems to be such a great evaluator of talent, and he's not convinced with Leinart, so why should I be?"
"All I know is that what I've seen in the media: Matt blaming everyone but himself for the situation, and even calling out his coach in public. That's no starter in this league."
At this point, Leinart is damaged goods and, through both his actions and those of the team, the PR problem he had coming out of college has been compounded. It's going to take one hell of an opportunity for him to reverse perception, and he may no longer get it, thanks to this debacle