Quarterback Matt Leinart screams in celebration after J.J. Arrington broke off a 26-yard touchdown run against the Broncos Saturday night.
The fourth preseason game is a tool for NFL coaches and a possible springboard for players fighting for jobs but meaningless to most everyone else.
Where Friday night's Cardinals-Broncos game at University of Phoenix Stadium fits won't be known until Saturday at the earliest. The Broncos won, 28-14, in a game that degenerated with the deep reserves late. But the intrigue came from – surprise! – the mystery of which quarterback will start for the Cards in the season opener at San Francisco.
Kurt Warner started against the Broncos and looked sharp, completing all four of his passes. But Matt Leinart bounced back in a big way from his Oakland disaster, completing 10 of 14 passes for 177 yards and a touchdown. He also directed a second TD drive and created even more doubt over who coach Ken Whisenhunt will ultimately choose.
Asked of the difference in Leinart, Whisenhunt smiled and said, "He played better."
"That was one of the things we wanted to see," Whisenhunt added. "We made a point early in the week about (seeing) how he responds to adversity. He did a good job with that. It was important. I thought both quarterbacks did a good job."
The Broncos, as is their tradition, used no starters, benching 29 players altogether. The defense Leinart faced was a mix of second- and third-stringers. But he looked like a completely different quarterback than the one who took the field against the Raiders.
Leinart left the locker room before media entered, but Whisenhunt said Leinart came into the game "very business-like."
"Maybe with a little chip on his shoulder," Whisenhunt said.
Warner wanted to come into the game and get more work after playing little thus far in preseason. Trailing 57-30 in snaps to Leinart coming in, Warner started and played nine plays. His final drive ended when Tim Hightower lost a fumble.
Warner said he tried to prepare for the game as if it was the regular season and said, in hindsight, he got enough work in the preseason.
Whisenhunt said he still wants to go over tape not only of the preseason but the last six months of work on the quarterbacks. He would not say when he would announce the choice.
"I know I don't have to make a decision until next Sunday," Whisenhunt said. "I don't anticipate it being that long. I want to make sure."
The decision could come as early as Saturday. Whisenhunt is scheduled to meet with the media after final cuts. The Cards don't practice again until Monday.
Warner echoed sentiments he said earlier in the week that he was anxious to find out.
"The great thing is we will find out soon," Warner said of the unknown starting nod. "We knew this was going to be a competition and was going to have to play itself out. You're just glad you don't have to make the decision."
"I haven't been told anything. I hope, for our sake, the decision is made sooner rather than later."
Whisenhunt and his staff have other decisions to make soon. The Cardinals must cut 22 players from the roster by 3 p.m. Saturday (in addition to moving linebacker Eduardo Castenada to the practice squad).
Whisenhunt brought up rookies Lance Long and Ali Highsmith as players who may have helped their cause against the Broncos.
"We saw a lot of individual plays by some of our team that will help in the evaluation process," Whisenhunt said.
The Cardinals finished the preseason 2-2.
Whisenhunt wasn't pleased the fourth quarter went bad for his team – the Cardinals were ahead 14-10 going into the fourth quarter – but in truth, many of the players in the game at that point won't be on the roster by Saturday night.
In the meantime, the spotlight will remain on Leinart and Warner, and the man who must decide between the two.
"You'd rather have a tough decision," Whisenhunt said.
The Cardinals suffered a scare in the first half when starting left tackle Mike Gandy was down on the field for a couple of minutes with a left knee sprain. He came off the field for the two offensive plays before a punt and it was announced he wouldn't return. But Gandy did come back to play.
"Yes I held my breath when he went down," Whisenhunt said. "You are trying to make a decision how long you want to play (starters) and when you get an injury it is unfortunate.
"We tried to get him out and he wouldn't come out, because of the chemistry with the rest of the linemen. We will know more (Saturday)."
Defensive tackle Alan Branch, who got his first start of the preseason, suffered a left ankle sprain and did not return. He too will be reevaluated.
REPLAY NO CHALLENGE FOR WHIZ
For a third time this preseason, Whisenhunt challenged a call – this time, a sideline reception by Early Doucet ruled incomplete – and had it successfully overturned.
"It was right in front of me tonight," Whisenhunt said. "That was too easy. Hopefully they will all be this easy in the regular season."
Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 8/29/08.