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Regaining Confidence

Posted Dec 1, 2009

Leinart's game in Tennessee helps him rediscover some needed swagger

Linebacker Bertrand Berry gives quarterback Matt Leinart a hug after the Cardinals scored the go-ahead touchdown in Tennessee.
 
 
Matt Leinart wasn’t going to be pulled from the game.

He wasn’t going to come out if he threw an interception, or look over his shoulder after a couple of stalled drives.

Maybe that, more than anything, was the defining part of Leinart’s game in Tennessee Sunday. It was about reestablishing confidence – his own, that of his teammates and coaches. It was Leinart, as linebacker Gerald Hayes said to him on the sideline at one point, getting his swagger back.

Scoff at the thought if you will – and many will, linking the idea of Leinart’s swagger with the less appealing parts of his past – but that self-belief is crucial to a player, especially to one whose career has  been left in limbo.

“I never really doubted myself,” Leinart said, “but you play for so long and people say all these things and you sit back and think, ‘I know I can play but am I ever going to get my shot?’

“Even though it’s one game and we don’t know what will happen this week, I got my shot and I think I took advantage of it, despite the loss. I want to be the quarterback here for a long time and I know I can. I am confident I can.”

Leinart’s immediate future is an unknown. Unless Kurt Warner’s eye issues cleared up quickly and completely from Monday, Leinart will likely approach each day like he may have to start again against Minnesota, even as Warner said Monday is plan is to play on “Sunday Night Football.”

If Leinart does have to play, however, he’ll undoubtedly see it through a different prism.

He wouldn’t be going to a Pro Bowl with a season based on the numbers he posted in Tennessee but he wouldn’t lose his job, either. He’ll build on a second half – 13-for-16, 137 yards, a 102.3 quarterback rating – that inspired teammates.

That angle was the best part for Leinart. Wondering if your teammates wonder about your ability is one of the hardest things for an athlete. Leinart never came out and said he worried about that, but he made clear hearing from them Sunday meant a lot.

“The greatest thing about it was my teammates all had my back, before the game, coming up, ‘We got you Matt, don’t worry, we got you,’ ” Leinart said. “It just gave me (the feeling), ‘OK, my team knows what I can do.’ And I played pretty well.”

The Cardinals as an organization saw it too.

“Whether you use the term swagger or, as I like to use the term, confidence, I think the only way to gain that is being in the action,” general manager Rod Graves said. “We were all anxious to see how Matt would perform. I think he quieted a lot of concerns this weekend.”

Added coach Ken Whisenhunt, “That was the question about Matt, one of the questions that is answered for me now. Can he do that in that role? … To see him handle it the way he did was very encouraging.”

It’s impossible to know where the Cardinals’ quarterback position will stand. Warner may show up to practice Wednesday 100 percent, like he was never hurt, and things will go back to the way they were and Warner ready to play out his contract next season.

But Warner’s issues could linger. The veteran has never been shy about saying, at age 38, he must reevaluate his future after each season. Leinart could be needed more this season, or be a starter in 2010.

After Leinart talked about in training camp about feeling more comfortable this season – without the pressure cooker of a competition between he and Warner – there also remains this possibility: While Leinart has inevitably improved his game while being pushed having Warner here, he may also be one of those quarterbacks who performs better without the pressure of another legitimate starter standing behind him. Arguably two of Leinart’s best games were his first two NFL starts, games in which Warner had been banished to the bench and the keys completed turned over to the then-rookie.

Leinart is a long way from those days. He’s a better quarterback and a smarter quarterback.
 
But getting some of that confidence – that swagger – back from those early days might be important as well. Not just for Leinart, but also everyone around him.

“(Sunday) wasn’t garbage time, it wasn’t hand off and maybe a pass here and there,” Leinart said. “I was starting and that was my game. We lost and I am really bummed about that. But I think I took advantage of the opportunity.”

SOME NUMBERS

Warner needs just 282 yards to reach 3,000 this season – which would make him the first Cardinal to ever throw for 3,000 yards three straight years.

The Cardinals lead the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage, at 71.1 percent. Of course, the Vikings’ defensive red-zone percentage is 37, second in the NFL.

Punter Ben Graham has 30 punts inside the 20-yard line this season, three behind the franchise record, set by Jeff Feagles in 1994.
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