For some fans, it’s about the player, the team be damned

We certainly have our problems out here in the arid lands of Arizona.  Illegal immigration, joblessness, sagging home sales and overall bad economy, not to mention a battle royal between “the toughest sheriff in America” and his supervisors, each suing the other.  That’s just to name a few. 

But the hottest topic during these dogs days of August is this:  Who will be the starting quarterback for the Cardinals, our NFL team?

It was assumed with the retirement earlier this year of the hallowed Kurt Warner that the heir apparent, Matt Leinart, would step in to those cleats behind center and life would go on.   But Leinart, the California golden boy, USC, Heisman Trophy and all that, hit a snag last week after mostly standing in the wings for three seasons.  The Cardinals head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, demoted Leinart to second team in favor of newcomer Derek Anderson, who played at Cleveland last season.   

That’s when all hell broke loose among Cardinals’ fandom.

It seems that while the handsome Leinart, with his image of Hollywood party-guy, lazed on the sidelines holding on with both hands to his shoulder pads, he was developing a deep sense of love and loyalty from spectators while doing next to nothing on the field.  In what can only be described as a mass emotional breakdown of irrationality and hysteria, the Leinart supporters  have gone digitally ballistic with their posts on the Arizona Republic website.  Some are even going against the coach, Whisenhunt, who has done nothing but good in his previous three years here.  Some posters in the past have given him the adoring titles of Wiz, the Whiz and Dr. Whiz.   “In Whiz We Trust,” is a god-like motto once banded about before the controversy. 

Whisenhunt, who had been an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, took one of the NFL’s softest and most bumbling franchises to the Super Bowl two seasons ago and deep into the playoffs in 2009.  Not to say he has proven himself to all for he, like the  entire Cardinals organization,  sailed along on Warner’s magical wings for several years.  What Whisenhunt will do without Warner will be closely watched. 

Caught in the middle is the innocent Anderson, who may yet watch Leinart soar to the front. Whisenhunt has not officially named the starter for the season opener September 12 in St. Louis.  But many see that “indecision” as gamesmanship, to force the Rams to dilute practice time and game-planning for both quarterbacks, not just one. 

The controversy is reminiscent of another heated debate among Cardinals fans two years ago over the starting running back, Edgerrin James, the future Hall of Famer nearing the end of his career, or the newcomer Tim Hightower.  It differed from the current controversy in character and intensity.  Many Cardinals fans hated Edge more than they felt strongly about Hightower.  Eventually James was traded to Seattle and has since retired.

Fans, like political debaters, snap at each other from distant corners.  Conservatives go for Leinart.  He is the more accurate passer.  But his passes are often short ones and he has had trouble moving the offense downfield in one start last year and in the current preseason.  His fans tend to like continuity.  He is seen as the safe choice, someone who has been treated unfairly by the coach and not given a real chance.  Detractors question his leadership abilities and toughness.  He has sustained two debilitating shoulder injuries since joining the Cardinals as their No. 1 draft pick in 2006.

Anderson, at 6-6 and an inch taller than Leinart, draws from the liberal base, a crowd more accepting of change.  Compared to Leinart, Anderson is a riverboat gambler. He has a bazooka for an arm and is not afraid to use it,  thinking at times he can overpower heavy coverage of his receivers.   To be sure, he has not developed Warner’s fine touch, some of his laser shots at close range too hot to handle.  But he can move the offense downfield, as he did in his first start last week in Chicago.  Some see him as tougher than Leinart, bold in stepping into the pocket and delivering a zinger downfield.   Despite a Pro-Bowl season in 2007, detractors say he was over-rated that year, that his 29 touchdown passes and 3,787 yards were offset by 19 interceptions and numerous sacks.    They fear, no predict, he is a mistake machine waiting to happen.

In an ongoing poll on the Republic website with more than 7,500 responders,  Leinart at one point today had 41.8 % in his camp, Anderson 35.2 % in his and 23.1 % with no preference.  That is probably good news for Anderson since almost 60 percent are with him or have an open mind.   Stranglely, a feverish debate surfaced over the No. 3 and 4 quarterbacks.  Who should the Cardinals keep, the draftee John Skelton, from Fordham, or the free agent Max Hall, from Brigham Young?   The more delirious posters suggest Hall should even be the starter, period. 

The Cardinals play their last preseason game Thursday at home.  It will mark the first time since the quarterback controversy erupted last week that Leinart and Anderson will confront their fans.  It is hard to know what the reaction will be.  Or, for that matter, which quarterback will start.  One thing is for sure.  The usually blah fourth game of preseason now has taken on a zesty life of its own.

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