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The Great Unknown

Posted Feb 2, 2010

Fully evaluating Leinart impossible until post-Warner opportunity

 For those looking for hope about what Matt Leinart can do, his Monday night performance against the Bears in 2006 was impressive.
 
 
With just under three minutes left, the Cardinals were suddenly trailing by one in a game in which they had a 20-point lead – and he marched the team downfield to set up the game-winning points.

Matt Leinart.

The Cards are undergoing a transition with Warner retiring. Leinart is the heir apparent and, barring a shocking development, going to be the Cards’ starter in 2010. Losing a probable Hall of Famer at the position is not an easy process, nor will it be for the Cardinals. Leinart also has much to prove.

Those are the facts. They are indisputable.

Dismissing Leinart’s potential to successfully follow Warner has become a popular pastime, but it is not a fact. That too is indisputable.

“I don’t think you ever know a quarterback until you see him game-after-game and you see him in numerous different situations,” Warner said Tuesday during a Super Bowl media blitz in Miami, in this case speaking to ESPN radio on Sports 620 KTAR.

“(Matt) has played bits and pieces, this game here and this situation there. It’s hard to tell. I don’t even know.”

It’s why I flash back to that October evening in 2006 when Leinart’s first opportunity at a coming-out party was sunk by the Monday Night Meltdown. He was 24-of-42 that night (not spectacular, but good enough) for 232 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Cards’ defense played arguably its finest game in the last decade, but two fumble returns for touchdowns and a killer punt return put the Cards behind the Bears.

Yet Leinart, six games into his rookie season and in only his second start, calmly completed 5-of-6 passes to set up a 40-yard field goal. Neil Rackers pulled the attempt left, or the memory of that night would have been Leinart’s comeback and not the Cards’ collapse.

One game doesn’t define a player. A performance in 2006 doesn’t mean Leinart will star in 2010.

But think back to those days, when the offensive line was constantly in flux (Nick Leckey at center? Chris Liwienski at guard? Oliver Ross at tackle?) and the running game simply not enough. The coaching staff was not as good as it is now.

Leinart had the Cards up 14-0 against the Chiefs in his first start ever. He threw for 405 yards in Minnesota that year. He was beating up the 49ers in San Francisco pretty good – 9-for-13, 162 yards and a touchdown – before a shoulder injury ended his season.

Even in 2007, when Leinart didn’t seem to be mentally ready to be coach Ken Whisenhunt’s starter, he played well (299 yards passing) in a win over a still-good Seattle team.

Those games get lost, though, and that’s understandable. They get lost in the years that have passed, in the accolades Warner collected, in the inconsistencies (or worse) Leinart has had in his brief times to play since he broke his collarbone early in the 2007 season.

“I believe in Matt Leinart,” general manager Rod Graves said. “I think he’s going to answer a lot of questions that have been out there for him.”

Whisenhunt continues to say he is “excited” in what Leinart can become and believes learning behind Warner has helped. The Cardinals will adjust the offense to be better suited to Leinart’s strengths – as opposed to Warner’s – and that should help. The Cards will sign a veteran in the offseason and likely draft a rookie at the position, but it will be interesting to see Leinart have an opportunity without Warner in the way.

Warner’s shadow isn’t going to disappear, of course. Following a legend isn’t easy. Anyone expecting Leinart – even a successful Leinart – to play like Warner, whether it be in 2010 or down the road, is probably going to be disappointed. Their styles are different, their games are different. Leinart isn’t the guy who is going to end up with more touchdowns than incompletions in a game.

That doesn’t mean he and the Cards can’t find a way to win.

“It’s time for him to produce and be the player that Matt knows he can be and the player we all know he can be,” safety Antrel Rolle said at the Pro Bowl. “We’re all going to be behind him 100 percent of the way.”

But Warner crystallized the thinking when he noted, “We don’t know with Matt.” Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett echoed the sentiment, telling cbssports.com, “I don’t know.”

“You never know,” Dockett added.

Leinart will let everyone know soon enough.
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