TEMPE, Ariz. -- Maybe Matt Leinart should follow the career path blazed by former tennis star Anna Kournikova. He's already got the good looks. He had plenty of early-career hype, and in four-plus seasons in the NFL, he has enjoyed no measurable success.
Modeling could be a nice fall-back for Leinart. It might even become necessary if his next NFL stop doesn't pan out. At 27 years old, and with a growing load of unflattering baggage, the former Heisman Trophy winner is running out of options.
|Leinart somehow lost his job to Cleveland washout Derek Anderson (background). (AP)|
Coach Ken Whisenhunt insisted at the time that he just wanted to shake things up and see how the team, including Leinart and Anderson, responded. Both quarterbacks answered with their best preseason performances, but something happened between that Saturday game and Monday's first media availability that punched Leinart's ticket out of town.
It was clear Leinart felt he had done enough in Chicago to regain the starter's role. When Whisenhunt decided otherwise, Leinart voiced his displeasure to a handful of reporters who cornered him coming off the field at the team's Tempe practice facility. Leinart suggested that Whisenhunt's decision had nothing to do with his on-field performance. "I think this goes beyond the football field," he said. "I've done everything they've asked of me and more -- outplayed the competition in training camp and preseason.
"Obviously there's something that's going on; I don't know what it is."
Then Leinart committed the cardinal sin of admitting he hadn't yet talked to Whisenhunt about the issue.
Whisenhunt has maintained an open-door policy with his players ever since arriving four years ago. Several players, including receiver Larry Fitzgerald and former quarterback Kurt Warner, have taken advantage of that policy to voice concerns, make suggestions or simply shoot the bull with their coach.
The fact that Leinart used the media as his pulpit didn't sit well with Whisenhunt. The next day, the story broke that the Cards were shopping Leinart.
At Saturday's press conference to announce the team's final three cuts -- one of which was Leinart, Whisenhunt said the team had explored a few trade options but "nothing ever really materialized." So Whisenhunt made the curious and questionable decision to cut the quarterback he had all but anointed the starter throughout the offseason, OTAs and training camp.
Whisenhunt never named Leinart directly, but it was clear in his comments Saturday that he felt Leinart lacked the leadership qualities necessary to command the huddle and win the respect of his teammates.
While addressing the quarterback position, Whisenhunt said: "After they make plays, good or bad, in a preseason game, you can tell a lot by how your team responds to those guys coming off the field as far as their perception of him."
Leinart's body language was not what you'd expect of a leader. He sulked in the locker room, he kept to himself on the sidelines and he called out rookie receiver Stephen Williams in the second preseason game against the Titans for running a poor route. As he came to the sideline, Leinart screamed "Find the ball!" ignoring the fact that nobody could have caught such a poorly thrown pass.
Was Leinart's relationship with his teammates a big factor in his release? It seems logical.
We've all heard TV analyst Cris Carter lambast Leinart. We all know Carter and Fitzgerald are tight. There aren't many degrees of separation between those realities, but that and Leinart's body language constitute, at best, circumstantial evidence.
We'll never know the truth because teammates never talk about these things publicly. And as reporters, we shouldn't accept that Leinart lost his teammates simply because Whisenhunt implies it.
In fairness to Whisenhunt, he's always had a good read on the mood of the team. But it's also a convenient way for Whisenhunt to remove a guy whose personality never clicked with his own. Whisenhunt was a blue collar player, a guy who fought for every scrap he got during a seven-year NFL career.
Leinart was the chosen one. A pretty boy product of USC. A can't miss prospect who had much handed to him -- at least that's the perception. The two personalities never meshed. Whisenhunt didn't draft Leinart and it's clear that he wants his own man behind center.
How little does Whisenhunt think of Leinart?
He's ready to hand the reins to Anderson, a guy who completed 44.9 percent of his attempts last season with three touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 42.1. A guy who most observers expect to play his way off the field at some point this season. And how about the fact that Whisenhunt is willing to go to war with two rookies as his No. 2 and No. 3 quarterbacks?
Max Hall looked terrific against third and fourth-stringers in the preseason -- the ROYs (rest of y'alls) as football insiders call them. But there's a reason Hall went undrafted. His arm strength is questionable and he's short. "He's not the second coming at that position," Whisenhunt acknowledged, "but he's done a lot of good things."
Some have suggested that because Hall is 25 he's not your typical rookie, that those extra three years have somehow added football maturity. But NFL readiness has nothing to do with age. It has to do with experience. Whisenhunt has worked miracles in his four seasons in Arizona, turning a laughingstock franchise into a perennial contender. In that respect, he's playing with house money on this move. But in banking on Anderson and two rookies, it sure feels like he's cashing in most of his chips.
As for Leinart, he must wait and hope another team signs him. The Cards are no longer on the hook for his $2.485 million salary this year, but Leinart has collected about $17.6 million from the club since 2006 so he should be OK financially.
His resume, on the other hand, has taken a beating. When the Cards drafted him at No. 10, then-coach Dennis Green called his drop in the draft "a gift from heaven."
When Warner struggled that first year, Leinart was handed the job and kept it into the next season until a broken collarbone sidelined him and Warner took over.
Some have suggested Leinart was given a fair chance in those early years. In truth, nobody could have beaten out Warner once he rediscovered his game. Warner played at a Hall of Fame level his final two years so there is no shame in Leinart playing the understudy.
He was a young quarterback and Warner was the perfect tutor.
What is more disturbing is that Leinart doesn't seem to have absorbed any of Warner's personal graces -- the openness with the media, the tireless efforts in the community and with the fan base, and the superlative communication skills with his teammates and coaches.
His lack of muscle definition also suggests a guy who doesn't spend an excessive amount of time in the weight room and there is evidence that his film study, while improved this season, never matched Warner's -– or that of the knowledge-thirsty Hall.
Cutting a No. 10 pick is a damning statement on a team's scouting staff, but it's an even greater condemnation of Leinart. You can argue that Whisenhunt never gave him a fair shot this season, and even Whisenhunt acknowledged Saturday that point is open for debate.
But Leinart still lacks arm strength and an ability to throw the ball downfield consistently. And if he can't grasp the other subtleties of NFL quarterbacking outlined above, he will certainly go down as one of the more notable quarterback busts in NFL history. Not quite on the Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell level, but not far behind.
"Maybe, for him to be in a fresh start would be a good thing," Whisenhunt said. "To be honest with you, for both parties, I think this was the best direction to go."