My RELUCTANT Defense of Matt Leinart On The Occasion Of His Benching

Gerald BallCorrespondent IAugust 25, 2008

Motivated in part - but not entirely - by this story: Matt Leinart Benched

That is right, this is the SECOND time that Leinart has been benched. The first time was last year, but it was quickly forgotten as a result of Leinart's season - ending injury. I actually thought that Leinart's getting hurt would wind up benefitting him, as he A) did not have to deal with the media asking him about getting benched every week and calling him a possible bust especially with Reggie Bush struggling as well and B) after he got hurt the media and the fans would only remember the injury, not the benching (of course the players, coaches, and front office are another matter). So Leinart had a real shot to come back, win the starting job in the offseason, and mostly conceal the fact - as far as the public is concerned - that he ever did lose his starting job to Kurt Warner in the first place.

Truthfully, this should not be portrayed as a second (or first) benching either. Why? No 7th overall pick in the draft and presumptive starter gets benched after a bad preseason outing. Instead, truthfully, this is honestly just things picking up from where they left off last year. Make no mistake: Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart competed for the job last season. And it wasn't even a fair competition ... the odds were stacked for Leinart, whom the organization had every interest in seeing claim the starting job. Warner beat Leinart in that competition, and it wasn't close (remember, it was stacked, so had Warner beaten out Leinart by a small margin Leinart would have gotten the nod anyway). Even then, Leinart was given playing time, something that would have never been done for Warner had Leinart been the starter, mind you. So, things are really just back where they were before Leinart's injury. Warner is the starter, and due to his odd career path and the way that he plays the position (relying more on accuracy and timing than arm strength), can conceivably remain so for the next several years unless he gets hurt or someone beats him out.

Now let me make something clear: as an SEC fan who generally roots for Auburn (which is the "ugly duckling underdog" in both their big rivalries to Alabama and Georgia and will never have the great advantages that Florida, LSU, or even Tennessee enjoy), I have an interest in seeing yet another member of that "greatest ever" USC 2004 team shown to be overrated by their NFL struggles while so many members of that Auburn team have played pretty well (even if Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams have been hampered by injury). However, even one with such biases as myself feels compelled to rise up and defend Leinart.

On what basis? Why not start with a comparison between Warner and Leinart. Where is Leinart right now? A backup to a former Super Bowl and league MVP, meaning that there are no doubt some NFL situations where he would start. Where was Warner when he was Leinart's age? Playing in the Arena League and stacking groceries. Point: NFL QBs need time to develop. Some guys stink early in their careers and go on to be Hall of Famers like Steve Young and Terry Bradshaw. Other guys play well early only to later collapse like Rick Mirer and Kordell Stewart. But guys who become good players by their second year and maintain it over long careers like Dan Marino, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning are rare.

The truth is that as a general rule, young quarterbacks should not even be considered for the starting job until their 3rd or 4th season. (This is not to say that a QB is ready by year 3 or 4, but rather you have to get them on the field by that point so that you can give them 2 years of time as the starter to see whether they will pan out.) As a consequence, no QB should be taken in the first round, especially in the top 15 selections, unless he has special ability or skill, which Leinart of course does not have. (John Elway: special ability. Peyton Manning: special skill. Dan Marino, Warren Moon, and Johnny Unitas: both.) The reason for this is not only so that the QB can learn the NFL game, but also so that the team that drafts him will have an opportunity to learn his strengths and weaknesses and acquire offensive personnel around it. That way, you avoid situations like the one with, say, LEINART IN ARIZONA: a guy with an average at best arm and limited mobility even for a dropback passer playing with 2 deep threats at WR, an injured shell of his former self at tailback, and a bad offensive line. Why does this not hinder Kurt Warner? Simple: Warner has been playing professional football since Matt Leinart was in fifth grade. He has the knowledge and experience to succeed in a situation that does not conform to his abilities. Before Leinart or most any other QB is handed a starting job, they either need a favorable situation or the knowledge and experience necessary to be productive without it.

Let me give you another recent example that is not as egregious as the nightmares that guys like Tim Couch and David Carr were thrown into where they had absolutely no chance: Byron Leftwich. It was well known that the fellow lacked mobility, had a slow release, and played in a shotgun offense against a low level of competition in college. This was on top of his having little experience at the position, having moved to QB from defensive lineman during his senior year of high school. What do the Jacksonville Jaguars do? Draft him #7 overall and stick him in the starting lineup immediately behind a terrible offensive line and with bad receivers, and had him run an offense that was completely different from what he had run for 5 of the 6 years that he had played the position. Leftwich did little but take a pounding until David Garrard, who had much more abillity and a quicker release, took over. This was similar to the experience of Trent Dilfer, another immobile QB with a slow release, with another Florida franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccanneers. Dilfer arrived at Fresno State as a linebacker, and only had 3 years experience playing QB - at the small college level in a rather simple wide open vertical offense - before being taken #6 overall and thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie on a team with a terrible offensive line and worse wide receivers, to speak nothing of going through a series of offenses that were completely different from what he ran at Fresno State. Seriously, how was either guy supposed to succeed? The truth is that both guys should have been drafted in the third round and made to sit on the bench at least until their franchises acquired better linemen and receivers or at least learned to be decent QBs without them.

That is why west coast offense teams from the Bill Walsh school do it best. West coast offense teams RARELY draft QBs in the top 10. Instead, Ken Anderson was drafted in the 3rd round, as was Joe Montana. Steve Young was signed as a free agent, as was Rich Gannon. Matt Hasselbeck was acquired by Seattle in a trade. Jeff Garcia was signed from the CFL. Green Bay did trade a 1st round pick for Brett Favre, but only after he showed great promise with the Atlanta Falcons. West coast offense teams know that it isn't about your individual talent or what you did in college, but learning and having the ability to run their offense. So since it is going to take 3 to 4 years to learn their offense and for the coaches to see if you have the ability to run it anyway, why bother on a top 10 pick based on his alleged ability to play right away?

Now truthfully I loathe the west coast offense, so I am not going to argue that more teams adopt it. However, I do fully advocate teams' adopting their approach to handling their QBs no matter what offense they run.

A. Do not draft QBs too high because you are smitten with their great arms or college careers.
B. Do not play QBs until they have demonstrated that they have learned and can run your offense over a few seasons in practice, preseason, and mopup time as backups.
C. If you have designated your "QB of the future", please go out and get the types of players that will make your "QB of the future" effective.

The Arizona Cardinals did none of these with Matt Leinart. They drafted him too high. They made him the starter as a rookie, before he could learn the NFL game and master the team's offense. They had Leinart run an existing offense rather than run a scheme that suited his skills (seriously, Arizona should have been the one to hire Norm Chow, not Tennessee, but what Tennessee is doing to Vince Young is case of what I am speaking of, similar to how San Francisco has basically ruined Alex Smith). And they did not recognize that USC's offensive line, running game, and defense were key components to Leinart's success and thus did not build those things before Leinart took the field. All because Leinart was such a good QB in college eh? Sure, as if Chris Weinke, Danny Wuerrfel, and Tommy Frazier weren't good in college too (Frazier and Wuerrfel were actually better).

So guys inclined to make fun of Matt Leinart because he generally tended to get the better of your team in college (and this definitely includes me, the Auburn fan ... 23 - 0 at Auburn and getting the #1 ranking and Heisman after Auburn finished 13 - 0) had better temper your fun at his expense. It is true that Leinart, along with Bush and White and virtually everyone else from that program under their run with the exception of Troy Polamalu, have been proven to be just good players in very good situations rather than the all time greats that they were made out to be, which shows a lot of the hype that that program has received to be unjustified. But first: when it happens to the star QB from YOUR favorite college team, it won't be so hot, will it? I for one am very glad that Auburn's Jason Campbell was drafted in a position that better fit his ability (#25, still too high, but without the expectations to play right away and carry a franchise) and got to sit on the bench for a year and a half. Campbell is also mobile enough to survive behind Washington's not great offensive line, and has Clinton Portis running the ball.

Better still, Washington is installing the west coast offense that made Campbell a 5 star high school recruit and used to go 13 - 0 his senior year at Auburn (Campbell truthfully is not a west coast offense guy on the NFL level but at least it is an offense that he knows) and drafted the types of big physical receivers that Campbell, whose quickness of release and accuracy on short routes is not ideal, needs to succeed in 6'2" 215 lb. Devin Thomas,  6'3" 220 lb. Malcolm Kelly, and even better USC TE Fred Davis. Davis will allow the Redskins to run 2 TE offenses with Chris Cooley while Thomas, Kelly, and Campbell learn an NFL west coast offense, and that will spare Campbell from having to succeed or fail based on getting the ball to 5'9" Santana Moss and 5'8" Antwaan Randle - El on slants and timing routes (a task better suited to, say, MATT LEINART) while running an offense that he does not know.

So if Campbell ultimately succeeds and Leinart ultimately fails, it will not be so much because Campbell was a better QB to begin with, but rather because he was handled better by Joe Gibbs and Jim Zorn than was Leinart by Denny Green and Ken Whisenhunt. Although to be fair to Whisenhunt, he inherited a bad situation - including a terrible offensive line - from Denny Green. In that respect, Matt Leinart's short term humiliation may aid his cause in the long term: Leinart gets to sit on the bench while he learns from a veteran. Whisenhunt gets to win enough games in the meantime to keep his job, allowing him to upgrade Arizona's talent base.

So have your fun laughing at Leinart today. In a couple of years with more knowledge of the game and a better team around him, Leinart may well be the one doing the laughing just as he did to all of your teams in college (that is except Texas). And you know what? I hope it happens. Why? Not because I am a supporter of Leinart - truthfully I cannot stand the fellow - or the Cardinals (whose owner I cannot stand, plus they should be in SAINT LOUIS ... if only the Rams and the Cardinals could switch names and uniforms, and then there is BILL BIDWILL their owner). Rather, as a football fan, we need as many good QBs in the game as possible. So, whether it is an SEC fan who loathes PAC - 10 QBs like Leinart or ACC QBs like Matt Ryan, a passing game traditionalist who things Vince Young should be playing wide receiver, or someone who is just predisposed to want Tarvaris Jackson replaced because you never heard of him before he was drafted and believe that someone with a bigger name deserves the opportunity, the truth is that we should generally root for these QBs - if not necessarily their teams - for the good of the league. And that means hoping that more teams take QBs lower in the draft and give them chances to succeed.

The thing is that if you pay attention to the draft reports and the opinions of the NFL scouts, very few QBs that go in the first round, even in the top 10 picks, actually have first round grades. Also, many teams draft QBs when the biggest need or best value was at other positions. Case in point: the Atlanta Falcons, who passed up better prospects at their badly needed tackle positions (offensive AND defensive) and could have easily either traded for a veteran QB or drafted the very accomplished Chad Henne or Brian Brohm in the second round. The smart move would have been to trade down and draft Sedrick Ellis from the hated USC (yes, in the process passing up Glenn Dorsey from the noble LSU ... Dorsey is a better player, but Ellis would have better fit the Falcons' needs). Why do teams do it? Money. First round draft picks at QB brings exposure for the franchise, which translates into ticket and jersey sales and advertising dollars. Most teams are looking for "the face of the franchise" to the fans, advertisers, and media, and that isn't going to be your middle linebacker or right guard.

It is a ridiculous way to run a franchise, because the valuable picks, huge signing bonus, and obligatory "will he or won't he pan out" time sets franchises back. Even the players that do pan out ... you often give these guys a $70 million first contract and a $125 million extension based on where they were drafted when QBs drafted much later will get half that much even if they put up better numbers. So even if Chad Henne and Brian Brohm go to 8 Pro Bowls apiece and Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco only go to 6 between them, Ryan and Flacco will always make more money. The same is true if Tarvaris Jackson, Kellen Clemens, and Brodie Croyle are ultimately better QBs than Vince Young and Leinart. 

It has to change, and hopefully the huge number of highly drafted QBs' failing and the coming rookie salary cap will cause it to.