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The Surprising Fall of Matt Leinart

Posted on September 06, 2010 by Dean Hybl

Matt Leinart was never able to emerge as the clear starter in Arizona.

NFL history is full of quarterbacks who were high draft picks or Heisman Trophy winners but were unable to make it in professional football. However, I remain surprised that it appears likely that the Matt Leinart’s name will soon be added to that list.

Many of the highly regarded college quarterbacks in recent history who didn’t cut it as NFL starters really can’t be seen as surprises. Some, like Andre Ware, David Klingler, Joey Harrington and Ty Detmer were products of the system they ran while in college. Others, such as Akili Smith, JaMarcus Russell, Dan McGwire and Ryan Leaf had only limited college experience and were drafted more based on potential than on-the-field success.

Matt Leinart was not only the quarterback of two national championship squads and the winner of a Heisman Trophy, but he had the talent that would have likely made him the first pick in the NFL Draft had he left following his junior season in 2004.

Instead he returned to lead the USC Trojans to within a whisker of a third national title and then was selected with the 10th pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. At the time, his drop to the tenth spot was attributed to the strength of that draft, but in reality it may have been the first sign of things to come.

Then Arizona coach Dennis Green was thrilled to have Leinart fall to the Cardinals and put him in the starting lineup for 11 games during his rookie season as a replacement for former league MVP Kurt Warner. As it turns out, that was the highlight of Leinart’s four years with the Cardinals.

Will Matt Leinart Ever Start Another NFL Game?

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Arizona was 4-7 in his 11 starts while Leinart completed 56.8% of his passes for 2,547 yards, 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Green was fired following the 2006 season and new head coach Ken Whisenhunt maintained Leinart as his starter quarterback. After leading the Cardinals to a 3-2 start in 2007, Leinart broke his collarbone and missed the remainder of the season.

By the time Leinart was again healthy, Warner had resurrected his career and eventually led the Cardinals to consecutive division titles and nearly a Super Bowl title.

Leinart saw only limited action in those two seasons with one start and a number of mop-up performances.

When Warner announced his retirement following the 2009 season, it was supposed to be time for Leinart to take control of the Cardinals. Instead, even before training camp there were hints that Leinart wasn’t really in the plans.

Leinart was never able to emerge from the shadow of future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner.

Arizona signed former Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson in the off-season and while they technically called Leinart the starter, it was clear that Anderson would get a chance to perform.

During the preseason, Leinart started the first two games and looked average. Anderson saw significantly more action and looked maybe slightly better though their numbers were relatively similar.

When Anderson was named the starter for the third preseason game, Leinart saw his chance to be the starter slipping away and did not take it particularly well. His public reaction didn’t impress teammates that evidently were already unsure of Leinart’s ability to lead the team.

There was no outpouring of support in the lockerroom for Leinart and eventually Whisenhunt made the public comment that the quarterback had lost the confidence of his teammates.

The public dispute between quarterback and coach left the Cardinals with little choice but to cut ties with the quarterback they had once expected to lead them to glory.

At first there was some question as to whether Leinart would easily find a home, but he was signed by the Houston Texans to serve as a backup. With talented Pro Bowler Matt Schaub running the show in Houston it seems like only an injury to Schaub will lead to Leinart seeing any significant action anytime soon.

If Leinart can repair his confidence and reputation in Houston there is a chance that he could eventually get another chance to be an NFL starter, but that seems somewhat unlikely.

Instead, it may be only a matter of time until Leinart joins the list of former college hotshots who couldn’t maintain that magic in the NFL.

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