It was a sorry-looking thing, a sidelines pass thrown with no confidence and no zip. The pass was so poorly thrown that even Stephen Williams, the Cardinals rookie phenom of preseason, couldn’t catch it. It fell incomplete somewhere near Washington’s 40-yard line last night and lay there dead for a moment on the cemetery-green grass of University of Phoenix Stadium as the punt team trotted onto the field. Almost an interception, and miles, it seemed, from the coveted south end zone
With that dud so ended in all probability the Arizona career of the franchise’s once golden-boy, Matt Leinart. Only the delusional could believe now that there remains a quarterback controversy and that the newcomer, Derek Anderson, will not open the season as the starting quarterback on September 12 in St. Louis. Many are of the opinion Leinart will be traded or released this weekend. As the game wound down, Leinart and the undrafted rookie quarterback, Max Hall, a full head shorter, talked amiably on the sidelines. Oddly, it was Hall’s rise in the preseason that likely makes Leinart expendable. Hall has been everything the Cardinals wanted from Leinart and didn’t get.
This was such a typical game for Leinart in these later years since he signed a six-year deal as a rookie in 2006 for $50.8 million. His die-hard supporters cite his passing accuracy but overlook his aversion for throwing downfield, his inability to put points on the scoreboard. His game is short passes, and he did complete three of those five for 14 yards. But he was sacked once and of course did not give his team even the slightest sniff of the end zone. By contrast, the strong-armed Anderson, who started the game and played only one series, was near perfect, two long completions of 20 and 25 yards. Anderson’s other pass, also a long one over the middle, zipped off the finger tips of the third-string tight end. His efforts led to a 54-yard drive and a field goal. And he did it with virtually no help from a befuddled running game.
It was sad in a way to watch Leinart’s deterioration. He had gone so high in the beginning. His arrival in Arizona four years ago just in time to open a beautiful new stadium in Glendale sent tremors through the Valley and gave an aura of respectability to a franchise so long in the dumps it seemed to be permanent. Just think. Matt Leinart, national college powerhouse USC, Heisman Trophy, a glamor boy, coming here! Phoenix has always dreamed of being the southwest’s little L.A. It had the smog, the crime, the sunshine and sprawl. Now, with Leinart, it would have a touch of the celebrity as well.
But the moment came and passed.
Leinart suffered two disabling injuries to a shoulder and a collarbone. And as he was struck down by those, the dormant talent of Kurt Warner rose again to unimaginable heights. To the Super Bowl and one Roethlisberger last-second pass from the NFL championship. A very sobering time, no doubt, for Leinart, Mr. Hollywood, who was not used to the shadows.
In the end, I think, Leinart was not the victim he said he was. Not the victim of the head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, for sure. Matt more than anything was a victim of himself. The victim of a relatively weak arm, ebbing confidence, a puzzling inability to read blitzes and a stubbornness, perhaps, that would not forget the former glories at USC, a sturbborness that led him to ignore the realities of the NFL that grew around him every day.
That last pass on Thursday night said it all.
He may go away but Matt Leinart will not be forgotten soon out here in the arid lands. His PR value alone surely was worth the money doled out by the Cardinals, his No. 1 draft pick far from wasted on that account alone. Unfortunately for Matt, it was, as Dickens wrote, the best of times and the worst of times.