Matt Leinart, here making a pass against Pittsburgh in the preseason opener, still believes he'll find success in the NFL.
FLAGSTAFF – In his mind's eye, Matt Leinart can see when his time has come.
He doesn't know the date, but he can feel the vibe, sense the accomplishment. He can mentally visualize finally becoming the starting quarterback, and what it would mean to him.
"I can picture myself laughing and smiling , kind of laughing at everybody who has doubted me," Leinart said. "I'm not there yet, but I am getting there, and I feel confident. I can kind of sense it, and it feels good."
He says this during a run-of-the-mill day at lunch in the cafeteria, while the man who currently owns the starting job – Kurt Warner – is making the media rounds outside. Warner is in the one in demand. Leinart is the one who backed into attention this camp for another reason, after coach Ken Whisenhunt made the backup quarterback role open competition between Leinart and Brian St. Pierre.
So there are those who will scoff at Leinart's words and his thoughts on the future. How can he be the starter, some say, when he has to fight to even be No. 2?
At this point, that doesn't matter to Leinart. It can't. He learned long ago that he had morphed into more than just another football player, especially in the fans' eyes. Reflecting back at his high-profile time in college at USC, he admits "it was the best thing and the worst thing for me, it turns out."
It prepared him for the spotlight but it also put him in the spotlight. That obviously didn't sit well with many, and turned Leinart into a polarizing figure once he arrived in Arizona – even among the Cards' own fans.
While Leinart has always insisted he is a "normal guy" – and that is a debatable issue for any top 10 NFL draft pick, especially one who has shown up in People magazine – he could understand how people viewed him coming out of college. But he is going into his fourth NFL season, long removed from L.A. Warner is entrenched as the starter. Why he still generates so much passion, from both sides, he doesn't fully fathom.
"People think they know me," Leinart said. "I realize there are people that love me and want me to do well and there are haters that love to hate me for whatever reason. That is the way I look at it. For me, it truly doesn't bother me.
"It's disappointing people can feel like that when they don't know the person. That's life – people judge other people all the time, whether or not you are quarterback. But I don't understand it, I don't really get it. Maybe coming out of college I could understand a little better why, being in the limelight, but that was a few years ago. Now I am just trying to be a good quarterback."
As a quarterback, Leinart is much more comfortable now. He said this camp is different because he is "100 percent confident" in knowing where to go with the football every throw, a far cry from the Leinart who was not prepared when he started Whisenhunt's first regular-season game that Monday night in San Francisco in 2007.
That doesn't mean he is satisfied. But after last season, when Leinart admittedly put so much pressure on himself in his battle with Warner for the starting job that it affected his play, he feels liberated even as he takes on St. Pierre.
It showed against the Steelers, when his play put him ahead of St. Pierre at this early juncture. If Whisenhunt has made anything in camp clear, however, it's that judgments are never made after one or even two games.
The man starting in front of both of them called Leinart and St. Pierre "great guys and good quarterbacks" and added his relationship doesn't change with them even as they battle on the depth chart.
"You don't have to walk on eggshells," Warner said. "You don't want them to feel any added tension or pressure, because I know what it is like to be in that situation, every day, every play, wondering about everything that goes against you. I just want them to be the best they can be."
That's all Leinart is trying to do right now. Get better. Hope he will play soon, but patiently wait until that time arrives. His NFL legacy can't be written until he's done with the game, so there is still opportunity to show what he believes he can be.
There is still opportunity for reality to match the future Leinart insists he can see, with a smile on his face and an offense that is his.
"I can't wait," he said.
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