TAMPA, FLA. – Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart has suffered a lot of indignities in his short NFL career.
Injuries to his shoulder and collarbone. Losing his job to Kurt Warner. The beer bong photos.
And there he was on Media Day Tuesday, standing by himself while punter Ben Graham sat at a podium.
“The first three years wasn’t how I would have drawn it up coming out of college,” Leinart said.
Leinart did expect to be in the Super Bowl, but not as a backup whose talent, maturity and character have been questioned. It’s been a long, hard fall from his days at USC.
“I was asked if it was bittersweet being here,” Leinart said. “No, it’s not. It’s sweet being here. Obviously, you want to be able to play in the Super Bowl. This year didn’t work out that way.”
To his credit, Leinart has handled his situation well. He could have exploded in rage when coach Ken Whisenhunt named Warner the starter eight days before the regular season. He could have asked his agents to demand a trade or popped off in the media.
Instead, he shut his mouth and went about his business.
He’s been a true pro, and when was the last time anyone said that about him?
“I’ve seen a football player who in a tough situation has gotten better,” Whisenhunt said. “That’s what you really want to see in that environment. He’s never stopped working. He’s never complained.”
It hasn’t been easy for Leinart. He wants to play, and he believes he can be an elite NFL quarterback.
“You work so hard going into training camp, and you think you are going to be the guy and then it doesn’t happen that way,” he said. “So I really had to step back and it took me a little while to just sit back and say, ‘You know what?’ I can be a distraction and be all mad and point the finger or I can be a good teammate and support Kurt and still work my butt off and prepare every day like I’m the starting quarterback.
“And that’s the road I decided to take because that is just more the type of person I am.”
Leinart admits he’s been humbled. He had it all at USC — two national championships, a Heisman Trophy — and while he knew the NFL wouldn’t be that easy, he was certain he’d be a star.
Instead, he’s an afterthought.
Leinart doesn’t curse the course his career has taken, though. In fact, he’s certain the past three years will turn out to be good for him, both professionally and personally.
“I think I’ve grown up a lot as a person,” he said. “I always joke, ‘I’m 25 and I feel like I’m going on 40.’ ”
It helps that he and Warner have become good friends rather than rivals. Warner has become his mentor, doling out advice on everything from being a father to reading defenses to dealing with disappointment.
Plus, Warner has played at such a high level this season that Leinart has no room to complain about his role.
“Kurt Warner is a guy who I think will be in the Hall of Fame,” Leinart said. “I just sit back and say, ‘I’m not a bad quarterback. I just happen to be on the same team with this guy.’”
Warner is an unrestricted free agent after the season, but the Cardinals likely will offer him a new deal. Barring injury, that would chain Leinart to the bench for at least another year.
Leinart doesn’t want to talk about the future — “right now I’m not even worried about that” — but whatever happens, it won’t shake his self-confidence.
“I know I can play,” he said. “I’ve always known I can play.”