Matt Leinart walked out of the glaring sun after a Cardinals workout last week and took a seat on a low, shaded cement wall outside the locker room. While discussing his presumed return to the starting role for the first time since 2007, the 27-year-old quarterback leaned forward and stared at the ground. But he lifted his gaze when the subject turned to whether this is a make-or-break season for him.
"It's obviously a huge year," Leinart said in a determined voice. "I get it. I've got two more years left on my contract, and I haven't done a lot to this point."
The 2004 Heisman Trophy winner was expected to lead Arizona for a decade after being drafted 10th out of USC in '06. He showed promise as a rookie under Dennis Green, throwing for 2,493 yards and 11 TDs in 11 starts, but injuries and questions about his commitment opened the door for Kurt Warner, who led the Cards to back-to-back playoff appearances and their first Super Bowl berth.
Warner's retirement in January should have put the job back in Leinart's hands, but coach Ken Whisenhunt, who believes in stockpiling talent, has not ruled out adding former Pro Bowl QB Marc Bulger, who was cut by the Rams in April. Moreover, the Cardinals must make a long-term decision on Leinart by next year because his payout is reportedly scheduled to climb some $10 million in '11.
For now Whisenhunt is saying complimentary things about Leinart. He asserts that the quarterback is more mature and has a better grasp of the offense than in 2007, when he threw twice as many picks (four) as scores (two) in five starts before sustaining a season-ending broken collarbone. Last year against the Titans, Leinart, starting in place of the concussed Warner, completed 21 of 31 passes for 220 yards with no turnovers in a last-minute 20--17 loss. "He went into that game without getting a lot of reps, without expecting to play, and he did a good job," Whisenhunt says. "So to me the idea of him running the offense, managing the game, making smart decisions—he's a lot more in tune with what it takes to do that on a consistently successful basis than he was three years ago. And he's worked hard."
Teammates also see a changed Leinart. "With quarterbacks, 85 percent of being successful is confidence," says running back Tim Hightower. "Matt has had time to learn from Kurt and see the positive attributes he brought to the game. You take those lessons and you add some confidence, and I don't see why he can't be successful."
As Leinart sat outside the locker room, sweat rolling down his forehead, commitment didn't appear to be an issue. "I've paid my dues, I've put my time in and worked my butt off to get to this point," he said. "I'm ready to show everyone what I've got."
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League officials and team owners will pat themselves on the back this week if the 2014 Super Bowl is awarded to New York/New Jersey. But don't expect players to celebrate. "Part of the reward for getting to the biggest game of your life is the beautiful warm weather or the climate-controlled atmosphere," says two-time Super Bowl champ Rodney Harrison. Proponents of the Meadowlands point out that some of the NFL's most memorable battles—the Ice Bowl, the Tuck Rule Game (below)—occurred in harsh weather. But consider: Chargers Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow says he still has physical ailments from playing in the January 1982 AFC title game in Cincinnati, during which the windchill was -59. Doubt that's in the press packets.
ROSS D. FRANKLIN/AP (LEINART)
STRONG HAND Cards coaches and players have seen a more confident Leinart in off-season workouts.
MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/GETTY (TUCK GAME)