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Leinart can only watch and stay ready as backup

| Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Matt Leinart is accustomed to attention, with a Heisman Trophy and two national championships at USC.

He is still, the Arizona Cardinals insist, the team's quarterback of the future.

No one knows when that future might be. For now, he's just a backup, preparing to watch the Super Bowl and be ready should anything happen to Kurt Warner, the old guy who beat him out for the starting job and has guided the team to unbelievable heights.

"I know my time is coming," Leinart said this week. "This year is not what I expected at the beginning, but it's been great. I mean, we're on a Super Bowl run, which is unbelievable. It's a learning experience, that's all it is, and it will make me better."

Leinart has not made any waves about his situation, even in the immediate aftermath of coach Ken Whisenhunt's decision just before the season to make Warner the starter.

Warner went on to a performance rivaling his big years with the St. Louis Rams, cementing Leinart's spot on the bench. The more Leinart sits, the more the perception grows that in his third season he is an NFL bust.

"I've heard everything," he said. "A lot of people doubt me. A lot of people don't think I can play. It doesn't really bother me, truthfully, because if I let it bother me, I will be out of this game quickly. If anything, it just motivates me. It makes me work harder and kind of have a chip on my shoulder."

Leinart was 37-2 as a starter at USC, winning the Heisman Trophy and leading the Trojans to the national championship in 2004. Although he might have been the No. 1 pick in the draft that year, he chose to return to school for his senior season. USC advanced to the national title game, but lost to Texas.

The Cardinals were surprised when Leinart was still available when their pick, the 10th overall, came around in the 2006 draft. They grabbed him and considered him their franchise quarterback.

Coach Dennis Green made the left-handed rookie the starter five games into the 2006 season. In 12 games, 11 as a starter, Leinart completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,547 yards and 11 touchdowns, but was intercepted 12 times.

New coach Ken Whisenhunt picked Leinart over Warner as the starter in 2007, but quickly gave the veteran playing time in an efficient no-huddle offense. Then five games into the season, Leinart got a vicious hit from St. Louis Rams linebacker Will Witherspoon and was sidelined for the season with a broken collarbone.

Warner went on to have a strong year, guiding the team to an 8-8 record, but when the season was over, Whisenhunt said Leinart still was No. 1. But the coach assured Warner he would have the opportunity to win the job, and that's what happened.

Leinart's fate may have been sealed in an awful preseason start at Oakland, where he completed 4 of 12 passes for 24 yards with three interceptions. Two weeks later, Whisenhunt announced his decision.

"It was kind of frustrating in the beginning," Leinart said, "but I've learned a lot, I've become a better player, a better person."

He is trying to shed his image as a big party-goer, and talks about his relationship with his young son Cole.

"I've definitely grown up the last couple of years," Leinart said. "I think it's because of my son, becoming a father, looking at life from a different perspective. It's been a humbling experience, it really has."

He knows he could be called upon any time, although the 37-year-old Warner has been remarkably sturdy, starting all 19 games going into the Super Bowl. Leinart has appeared in four games, completing 15 of 29 passes for 264 yards with one touchdown -- the only score in Arizona's ugly 47-7 loss at New England -- and one interception.

Cardinals coaches and executives remain supportive. Whisenhunt compares Leinart's situation to that of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who had to wait behind Brett Favre before finally getting his chance. Arizona general manager Rod Graves insisted Leinart "is going to be one of the NFL's better quarterbacks."

Warner's big year could well mean more waiting, though. Warner's contract is up this season and the team wants to re-sign him.

"You can't worry about that," Leinart said. "Those are bridges you cross when it happens. I'm not even thinking about that. I'm just thinking about this (the Super Bowl)."

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