Titans quarterback Vince Young (left) and Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart (right) each expected to have a smoother transition to the NFL.
Matt Leinart and Vince Young will forever be linked.
They were the superstar quarterbacks of the 2005 college season, battling in arguably the greatest Rose Bowl ever after that season. They were the top two quarterbacks picked in the 2006 NFL draft, with Tennessee's decision to take Young over Leinart at No. 3 overall altering the futures of both the Titans and the Cardinals.
And they were the two quarterbacks forced to sit more than they ever expected when a couple of veterans – Kurt Warner for the Cardinals, Kerry Collins for the Titans – simply outplayed them to earn starting roles.
The difference, when the Cards and Titans meet Sunday for the first time since the players entered the NFL, is that Young is finally playing. Leinart – barring any setbacks on Warner's recent concussion – is not.
"I am happy for Vince," Leinart said. "When (San Francisco's) Alex Smith finally got his chance I was happy for him. Vince is a talented player and it's kind of nice to get a fresh start. He's playing pretty well.
Then Leinart let out a brief chuckle.
"I hope I get that opportunity."
It isn't as if both haven't had chances to take control of their respective teams' starting jobs. Leinart, of course, was thrust into the starting lineup five games into his rookie year and was kept there the following season by new coach Ken Whisenhunt – until Leinart's struggles meant Warner got some playing time, and then Leinart got hurt. Leinart couldn't beat out Warner the following training camp, and has mostly sat the bench since.
Young played a lot more. He started 13 games as a rookie, leading the Titans to the playoffs. But he had many more struggles in his second season and then in 2008, a knee injury and an impatient fan base made it difficult for Young to handle his situation. The Titans turned to Collins' steady hand, a perfect fit for a team that could run the ball and play good defense.
"It was difficult not being able to be out there to play," Young said. "With the type of confidence level I have I want to be out there competing. It wasn't time for me to play yet so I all had to do was work on my craft behind the scenes."
The comments are remarkably similar to those uttered by Leinart, who often talks about waiting for an opportunity, yet being ready when it arrives.
"My whole thing is control what I can control," Leinart said. "I've pretty much done that, worked and prepared. People will say what they want and think what they want."
In both cases, the coaches – Ken Whisenhunt for the Cards, Jeff Fisher for the Titans – believe the young quarterbacks have benefitted from their time out of the lineup. Fisher said Young has taken a different approach to the game, as opposed to his problems last season when he seemed to retreat mentally in the face of adversity.
Young admitted that time "definitely wasn't fun." But he said he learned from the situation, which in theory has helped him when he took over a 0-6 team, leading them to a four-game winning streak.
Leinart has seemed to deal with his NFL limbo a bit better, in part because Warner has carved out a Hall-of-Fame kind of career. At one point, he did an interview with the East Valley Tribune intended to extract non-football thoughts out of Leinart. One question asked Leinart with whom in the world he'd want to trade places? "Kurt Warner," was the response.
"You never know how things will shake out those first few years," Leinart said, adding he thought his time in the spotlight at USC helped him with the doubters.
The scrutiny hasn't passed for either player. Young is essentially on a tryout for the rest of the season as the Titans decide if their future rests with their former high draft choice. The Cardinals continue to look at Leinart as their quarterback when Warner retires, but there is still an evaluation process given Leinart's inconsistent play when he has gotten into games.
"I feel good about Matt as a guy who can start in this league," Whisenhunt said. "But as far as what packages he is good at … that will take some reps in a game. He does it fine in practice and fine in training camp, but getting that experience in live action is a different deal."
The paths could have been different. At the time of the draft, Norm Chow, Leinart's college coordinator, was on the Titans' staff and wanted Leinart. Fisher had played at USC. But Tennessee owner Bud Adams -- who is from Houston -- reportedly wanted Young and pushed for Young to be drafted.
Leinart said he thought there was a "good chance" he was going to be a Titan. Fisher simply said Wednesday it had been a tough choice between Young, Leinart and Jay Cutler.
Young and Leinart remain linked, although for different reasons than most expected.
"Whenever you get your shot," Young said, "you just have to prove them wrong."
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