Now that baseball is, for all intents and purposes, over in the Valley and the Suns seem to have made their big splash of the summer (although who knows), I'm ready for football. With Cardinals training camp opening in 12 days, I think it's fair that my attention begins to shift towards the oblong ball and all the hitting with the pads and whatnot.
For my first football-related trick, I'm going right to what most everyone considers to be the linchpin of the Cardinals' 2010 season - quarterback Matt Leinart.
An upfront confession for you: until last preseason, I hated Matt Leinart. Ever since I first saw him canoodling on the USC sidelines with "musician" Nick Lachey, I developed a full-on despise for the guy. I didn't like all the perceived pompous douche-baggery, the dominant teams (always thought he was overrated because of the talent around him), and that he got to play with a sword after they won games (I mean, who wouldn't be jealous of that?).
I didn't like that he was 37-2 as a college QB, won a Heisman, a National Championship (and a half) and always seemed to have a hot chick on his arm - Paris Hilton notwithstanding (gross). The fact that he was less than magnanimous when Vince Young and Texas knocked off the Trojans in the 2006 Rose Bowl pretty much sealed the deal for me - I hated Matt Leinart.
Knowing the above, you can imagine my displeasure when my favorite NFL team decided to pick up Leinart with the 10th overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. Not only was this insufferable douche being given the keys to the helm of my favorite team; he had arrived to take the job from Kurt Warner, my all-time favorite quarterback.
In what was a surprise to absolutely nobody, Leinart was named the starter of the 2006 Cardinals by week five, and of course he actually performed quite admirably considering the craptastical nature of that Cardinals team.
As the 2007 season began, Dennis Green - the man responsible for drafting Leinart - had been fired and replaced by Ken Whisenhunt. Armed with the attitude that the best man would receive playing time, Whisenhunt plugged Warner into games on a situational basis by week three of 2007. I suppose we'll never know how exactly the remainder of 2007 would have played out for Leinart, as he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in week five, but the way things were headed, it stands to reason that Warner would have eventually overtaken him.
Warner experienced a bit of a career renaissance in his 2007 opportunity, but as the team headed into the 2008 off-season, Leinart was handed the starting quarterback position again. The '08 off-season was the popular one in which Leinart was photographed holding a beer bong for some young girls. Not exactly the type of performance that was going to make a team or community rally behind a QB with an already exisiting reputation as a playboy.
Leinart's reign as starter lasted all the way until the third preseason game of that season, when he let loose a stinker of a performance against the Raiders (4-of-12 with three interceptions). Following that game, Warner was expected to be named the starter, a reality that came to pass after the final preseason game.
As you may remember, the 2008 Cardinals did pretty well - if you call making the Super Bowl "pretty well." Leinart rarely saw the field, with the exception of a few mop-up situations. Arizona had drafted Leinart to become the guy who would lead them to Super Bowls, yet he was in Tampa as a backup. Headed into 2009, the question wasn't whether Leinart would reclaim the starting job from Warner, but whether he would be able to hold off Brian St. Pierre for the backup job.
The fallen golden boy managed to keep his backup job, but was less than impressive in his seven relief appearances during 2009. Leinart was such a disaster in a couple of his mop-up appearances that Warner had to return to games to make sure the Cardinals could hang on for the win.
Matty did start one game during the 2009 season - against Tennessee - when Warner was suffering from post-concussion symptoms. While the Cards did not win the game, Leinart was solid, completing 21 of his 31 passes for 220 yards (but with no touchdowns or picks).
It's been at these lowest points of his career that I've actually begun to appreciate and root for Leinart to do well. In fact, I've gotten to the point that I not only believe Leinart to be the quarterback of the future, but I will delight in his success.
During the past couple seasons, I've paid pretty close attention to Leinart in an attempt to get a read on his attitude towards being the backup. To my surprise, he has always seemed genuinely thrilled at the success of the team - playing or not. Case in point, when Sean Morey blocked a punt to beat Dallas during 2008, the first guy on the pile after Monty Beisel scooped up the ball for the winning score was Matt Leinart. It's that type of thing that has helped me develop respect for a guy who has achieved his level of success (albeit at the college level).
In the past two seasons, Leinart has handled nearly everything thrown at him with an impressive level of skill and grace. When faced with battling St. Pierre for the backup job, you heard no complaints. When the team brought in Derek Anderson to push him this off-season, no complaints. Apparently, all he's done is work to become a better player. Imagine that.
With his mental game seemingly improving, I also don't have a great deal of concern about his previous game performance. People struggle in spots. Think about a guy who would be a great eighth inning pitcher, but can't be a good closer. It's like that. Asking Leinart to come on and relieve Warner is unfair. He was running Warner's offense and coming into games cold. When placed in a situation where the offense is tailored more towards him, Leinart has shown he can succeed (see that Titans game referenced above).
Now that the 2010 season is drawing closer, I feel even more confident about Leinart's chances for success. The face of the offense is going to shift from a heavy pass-based attack to one that uses the run - and bruising back Beanie Wells - to set up the pass. Without the pressure of carrying the offense, Leinart will be placed in situations where he can excel - and I for one believe he will rise to the opportunity.
He's got the ability, he's got the pedigree, and you better believe he's had the chance to learn a few things playing under Kurt Warner for the past few seasons. I never thought I'd be talking about Matt Leinart as an underdog story, but at this point it's what he has become. So join me ladies and gentleman, let us throw our support behind Matt Leinart while he tries to lead the Cardinals to their third consecutive NFC West crown. Seven years after he first came into my living room, I can finally say it: I LIKE Matt Leinart. Now if only I could get a sword to carry around.