Mailbag: How to handle quarterbacks

August, 29, 2010
8/29/10
12:11
PM ET
Cory from Arizona writes: I was watching a replay of the USC-Cal game from 2003 on Fox Sports last weekend. This was the year Matt Leinart took over as a starter for USC. The thing that caught my attention about the game was a comment by the announcers quoting Norm Chow. The comment was that Leinart was over-thinking in situations and the coaches told him to just go out and play football. When he started doing this, everything started clicking for him. This got me thinking about the Cardinals' handling of Leinart. I think this is why Leinart played so well his rookie year, yet has struggled when faced with competition. He started to doubt himself, and never regained his confidence. Do you think the Cardinals mishandled the transition to Leinart?

Mike Sando: Every coach must establish his approach and stick to his basic philosophy. Coaches do not treat every player exactly the same, however. They recognize which buttons to push for certain players. The goal should be to get the very best from Leinart. After watching the game Saturday night -- Leinart completed 9 of 10 passes -- perhaps coach Ken Whisenhunt is doing that in his own way.

As a Cardinals fan, you're left to trust that Whisenhunt knows the situation better than anyone and he's making the decision based on what works best for the team, not based on any personal misgivings he might have about Leinart.

Much is made of the fact that Whisenhunt inherited Leinart, but coaches can be hard even on their own hand-picked quarterbacks. I recall Mike Holmgren acquiring Matt Hasselbeck and immediately acknowledging that his tenure in Seattle would "sink or swim" based on the move. A year later, Holmgren decided Trent Dilfer gave the Seahawks a better chance to win right away. It didn't mean Hasselbeck was finished forever.

"If there was any naivete, that was kind of lost now," Holmgren said at the time. "This is the real world and you’ve got to get it done when you get a chance and some of the hard facts of the business come into it."

Hasselbeck, like Leinart now, was not happy with the move (unlike Leinart, he had started the previous season). Hasselbeck fought through his disappointment and became a good quarterback. Can Leinart do the same? Here's what Hasselbeck said after losing his job to Dilfer heading into the 2002 season:
It’s a little bit of like a football game, I guess. You’re out there on the field and playing the game and you kind of get blindsided. You get up, shake it off and just come back, keep fighting, keep playing. It’s not like this is a final decision. I was once named the starter here. Brock Huard was once the starter here. Guys are going to be named the starter. Guys are going to lose their jobs. Guys are going to get hurt. Guys are going to play well. Guys are going to play bad. It’s a long season. I hope to get another opportunity at some point and this time I’m going to make sure I’m ready.

A torn Achilles' tendon sidelined Dilfer after six starts in 2002. Hasselbeck took over and finished strong enough to win the starting job. He hasn't lost it yet. Leinart has a shot at emerging from this preseason as the starter for Week 1. He is not necessarily finished in Arizona.


Jeff from Waco, Texas writes: Sando, it appears that Niners have developed a little bit of heart this offseason. It was good to see them come back and beat the Raiders in the fourth quarter Saturday night and it's got to give this team more confidence coming to the end of preseason. But what do you think? After watching three weeks of preseason football, do the Niners have your confidence to win the division?

Mike Sando: The 49ers remain the favorite in my eyes. The preseason has only reinforced that feeling. They have the most stability and continuity in the division. They have they fewest question marks. Arizona is still searching for its quarterback. Seattle has some issues on its offensive line, plus depth problems overall. The Rams remain in the early stages. That doesn't mean the 49ers will win the division. It just means they look like the safest choice right now, based on what we know. Things change quickly, though, so you shouldn't take that division title to the bank.

How the 49ers finished against the Raiders isn't a factor in my thinking, however. There are probably key veteran players on the 49ers who couldn't tell you specifics about how that game against Oakland ended. There were a bunch of backup players out on the field. I'm sure coach Mike Singletary liked seeing the backups come back to win, but that will not have bearing on the regular season.


Barry from Scottsdale, Ariz., writes: Hi, Mike. With Russell Okung, Ben Hamilton, Ray Willis and Chester Pitts injured, why hasn't Seattle gone out and tried to bring in some outside talent to help bolster the line? All this talk about leaving no stone unturned makes me wonder. Is it possible we are waiting until the next round of cuts to see if some serviceable players become available?

Mike Sando: NFL teams will be releasing close to 150 offensive linemen over the next 10 days or so. The Seahawks will certainly check to see if any can help their depth (they tried to claim tackle Tyler Polumbus off waivers from Denver, but the Detroit Lions' waiver claim prevailed). They will need to decide whether Willis can help them this season. They will need to decide whether Hamilton can play well enough to justify a spot on the team in a mentoring role. Mike Gibson was probably going to start that third exhibition game at left guard even if Hamilton were healthy, and he might beat out Hamilton. Pitts' injury status is nothing new. The team knew he was coming off serious surgery and may or may not be ready for the season.


Arnold from St. Louis writes: Quick question about the Rams, Mike. Why has Rodger Saffold been at left tackle this preseason and Jason Smith at right tackle? I thought the plan was for Smith to be the future left tackle. I mean, we did draft him No. 2 overall! What gives?

Mike Sando: Your thinking is sound. A tackle drafted that early should play the left side. The Rams did not expect to land Saffold in this draft, however. Once they did, they saw he was well suited to the left side, in their view, and they thought Smith fit the mold of a mauling right tackle. Does this represent the most efficient use of resources? Not in theory. But if the Rams have bookend tackles for years to come, it doesn't matter as much how they got them.

I asked general manager Billy Devaney about the situation during camp. His reply: "We lucked out with Saffold. We didn't think we were going to take a lineman after taking Jason last year, but he stuck out. That was an easy one. There wasn't a lot of discussion. As it turned out, he may wind up being our left tackle. That is fine with us."

Rams left guard Jacob Bell said Saffold reminds him of Brad Hopkins, the longtime tackle for the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans. Hopkins and Bell played together for the final two seasons of Hopkins' career (2004 and 2005). Bell said they have similar feet -- quick and light enough to make a pitter-patter sound in pass protection. Smith is also athletic, but he might be less refined. His sledgehammer mentality could be better suited for the right side.

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