When Matt Leinart was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals early in the 2006 NFL draft he wasn't supposed to spend the next three to five years battling, or backing up, an aging quarterback. He wasn't supposed to struggle adjusting to football on Sundays and he certainly wasn't supposed to spend his 26th birthday wondering when he'll regain the starting job that he covets. For Matt though, reality hasn't merged with expectations quite yet and some are starting to wonder if Leinart will ever become the franchise quarterback that everyone envisioned just three years ago.
His road through the NFL hasn't been what many expected but the path he's traveling isn't exactly uncharted either. Many quarterbacks have struggled early in their careers in years past or simply not be given a chance when they were young. Leinart can look no further than the Cardinals' current starting quarterback Kurt Warner, who didn't start his first NFL game until the age of 28, yet has still managed to throw over 180 TDs, appear in three Super Bowls and be voted the NFL's Most Valuable Player of the Year twice. Leinart could also look at fellow southpaw quarterback, Steve Young who did become a successful starter until after his 30th birthday. Up until Young's seventh season he had managed to complete less than 56% of his passes and had a touchdown to interception ratio of nearly 1:1, not to mention a record of 10-19 as a starter. From the ages of 31 to 37 though, Young would be voted to the Pro Bowl seven times and named first team All-Pro on three occasions, as well as pick up a Super Bowl MVP of his own. No one knows what Leinart's career will look like 10 years from now but I'm sure Warner couldn't have imagined his wildly successful future when he was staring in the Arena Leagues at the age of 26. Likewise, I'm sure that Young didn't imagine piecing together a Hall of Fame career after the age of thirty. So what does the future hold for Leinart?
Through Leinart's first three seasons he seems to be dragged down by a couple of factors, the first of which is probably the most publicized. It's a rather commonly accepted feeling that Leinart came into the NFL as a highly confident, borderline cocky, player who hadn't ever had to put forth maximum effort in order to be successful on the field. To a lesser extent his overall maturity and dedication to the game were also questioned quite a bit. Whether or not either criticism was right or wrong, Matt seems to have matured greatly in the past year and has shown a dedication to improving his game that seems to be surprising just about everyone surrounding the for USC star. He's spent part of the off season working out with Tom Brady and has recently started training MMA-style in an effort to strengthen himself both physically and mentally. The second factor that's played a large role in Matt's struggles in the first three years of his career has been the coaching change from Dennis Green to Ken Whisenhunt. Leinart's rookie season has been, by far, the most successful of his career when he completed almost 57% of his passes and threw 11 TDs in as many starts. In his first year under Whisenhunt though the sophomore QB struggled to grasp the offense and ended up playing QB-carousel with Kurt Warner during games before breaking his collar bone five games into the season. It's not uncommon for young QB's to struggle with new offensive systems, just ask Alex Smith, regardless of the talent surrounding them. To a lesser extent, Leinart's footwork has never been stellar and that's been the focus of the new quarterback's coach Chris Miller. With better footwork Leinart's accuracy should improve and he should even gain some zip on the ball if he's able to effectively use his lower body. So what does all this mean for Leinart's future and when will he actually get another shot?
It could mean that he's finally taking his NFL career seriously and that he's willing to work diligently to become the absolute best player that he can be. It could also just be some media driven hype to try and restore some of the shine that has worn off his persona over the past three years. Either way it's likely that we won't know the answer to that question until training camp or the preseason. To answer the question of when he'll get a chance to prove he's a capable starter, it could be tomorrow for all we know. Nothing in this life, much less the National Football League, is guaranteed and backing up an aging quarterback with an extensive injury history is very much a day to day proposition. For all we know, Leinart might end up being the opening day starter this season or he could have to wait the entire two years of Warner's current contract. The thing that's important, at least in my mind, is that it sounds like a matter or when Leinart will take over the reigns as leader of this franchise, not if, and given the strides he's taken in the past twelve months and the work he's still doing, the future seems very bright for the guy that some were ready to bury last off season.
In today's "what have you done for me lately" league, most young players get very little rope to hang themselves, especially early round draft picks. Matt Leinart may have underwhelmed fans during his first three seasons but he still stands as the quarterback of the future, whenever that future becomes the present. Do you still believe that he can be a quality NFL QB? When will he take over the reigns from Warner?