ATLANTA - Matt Leinart was conducting a postgame radio interview Sunday on the Cardinals’ flagship station when he was asked if he knew anything about the team’s quarterback situation heading into next week’s game. Suddenly, coach Dennis Green grabbed the microphone.
“Matt Leinart is our quarterback,” Green told the listening audience. “Period.”
Out of the wreckage of Sunday’s horrific 32-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, the inevitable finally happened. Kurt Warner is out as the Cards’ starting quarterback, probably for good. Leinart, the team’s first-round draft pick and future face of the franchise, is the starter.
Green had wavered on whom to start coming into the Falcons game. Then Warner, who has become the poster child for all the Cardinals’ offensive ills, had an interception returned for a touchdown and lost a pair of fumbles — his ninth and 10th fumbles of the season in just four games.
Picking Leinart was “not an emotional decision,” Green later said in his press conference, in a nod to the soap opera surrounding the quarterbacks last week.
“We had a lot of time to think about it when we were losing very badly.”
Green certainly had time to stew. The Cardinals (1-3) generated only three offensive points against Atlanta. Their touchdown came on a 99-yard interception return by safety Adrian Wilson, a play that actually gave the Cards a 10-9 lead in the second quarter.
It was the Cards’ lone highlight of the day.
Running back Edgerrin James gained only 41 yards rushing on 20 carries, and 38 of the yards came after the Falcons (3-1) built a 22-10 lead. Receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald combined for just seven catches for 108 yards, and 46 of the yards came on one deep pass to Fitzgerald.
The offensive line, meanwhile, had trouble with a defensive line that was missing end John Abraham but featured two disrupting tackles in Grady Jackson and Rod Coleman.
“Anytime you have this much talent,” James said, “you just wonder what’s wrong.”
While Green praised the job his defense did, the Falcons — No. 1 in the NFL in rushing — gained an astonishing 262 of their 405 yards on the ground. Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick ran for a back-breaking 101 yards on 11 carries, while backup running back Jerious Norwood needed just six carries to gain 106 yards, 78 coming on the game-sealing touchdown run.
But that was just a backdrop to Green’s decision to switch quarterbacks.
On the 12th play of a Cards fourth-quarter drive that reached the Atlanta 23, Warner rolled right as the play broke down. While he looked for a receiver, linebacker Michael Boley drilled him from behind. Warner lost the resulting fumble — and his job.
Warner said he didn’t know Boley was behind him. Green put the blame on Warner, saying bluntly, “You’ve just got to throw it away.”
Warner finished 11-for-20 for 128 yards and his interception. He acknowledged he was pressing to play better but insisted it had nothing to do with Leinart looming behind him.
“You are frustrated and disappointed with things like this, but I wasn’t making enough plays to help us win,” Warner said. “The bottom line is you understand this is a team effort. It takes 11 guys on each snap to get this thing done, not just one guy.
“Hopefully Matt can spark something, do some of his magic like he has before and turn this thing around.”
Leinart was 5-for-8 for 49 yards and struggled himself, fumbling the ball away on his second play and later having a pass tipped by Coleman and intercepted by Boley. But he will have plenty of time to grow, starting Sunday in a home game against Kansas City.
“I am not an arrogant or cocky person, but I have a lot of confidence,” Leinart said. “I feel I can play.”
He’ll get his chance. Leinart steps into a situation that has seen the Cardinals score just 27 offensive points since putting 34 on the board in the season opener.
“We go out today and collect three points,” Boldin said with a shake of his head. “We are a lot better than that, and nobody can tell me different.”
Boldin said he thought Leinart would “hold his own” playing as a rookie, although he admitted the offense doesn’t have much choice.
Ready or not, the Matt Leinart era has begun.
“I just want the guys to have confidence in me,” Leinart said, “and hopefully, I can add some spark.”