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Thoughts on Matt Leinart's Arizona demise

9/4/2010
Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

Releasing Matt Leinart seemed unthinkable when the Arizona Cardinals opened training camp.

But their roster stands at 53 players Saturday after the team announced Leinart's release and the waived/injured statuses of Chris Johnson and Alfonso Smith.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt had said Leinart's status could come down to whether the 2006 first-round draft choice could stomach entering the 2010 season as a backup. Leinart never showed a willingness to accept that role. He questioned Whisenhunt's motives for demoting him and even claimed, defiantly, that he had outplayed the competition.

Poor body language on the sideline during an exhibition game at Tennessee and a broader sense of entitlement to the starting job following Kurt Warner's retirement stand as two likely factors in Leinart's sudden demise.

In the end, Leinart and Whisenhunt weren't a good match. In retrospect, it's easy to see why.

Leinart was a first-round draft choice from USC. Whisenhunt entered the NFL as 12th-round draft choice from Georgia Tech. Leinart was handed the starting job early in his career. Whisenhunt had to scrap his way through a seven-season career with three teams; nothing was handed to him. As Cardinals coach, Whisenhunt sought to establish an us-against-the-world mentality. Leinart represented the world in that equation. He was too cool to be the underdog -- or the backup to Anderson. It just wasn't in his USC DNA.

Leinart could have made this work if he had played by Whisenhunt's rules. He wasn't willing (or possibly able) to do that under difficult circumstances. He complained and pouted and made it impossible for Whisenhunt to name Leinart the leader of a locker room filled with players more closely aligned with the Whisenhunt mindset. Besides, it's not like Leinart had impressed on the practice fields. He hadn't taken control of the team.

At training camp, I had to remind myself to watch Leinart. Nothing about him stood out, good or bad. Leinart said he hoped to get extra reps during preseason games, but Whisenhunt suggested that was unnecessary. Instead, the coach wanted to see what Anderson could do while running the offense.

Meanwhile, rookie Max Hall, now the No. 2 quarterback behind Anderson, continued to win over the coaching staff with his unassuming approach. The staff saw some Warneresque qualities in the undrafted Hall, a player whose pedigree comes much closer to matching Whisenhunt's than Leinart's (Hall and Whisenhunt both achieved Eagle Scout status, by the way).

This situation wasn't always easy to read, despite those differences.

Earlier this offseason, Whisenhunt downplayed Leinart's 2009 struggles against Green Bay in Week 17, pointing to several mitigating factors. He instead pointed to a more competent showing at Tennessee in making the case that Arizona could succeed with Leinart under center.

In putting together a Cardinals Camp Confidential, however, I revisited a 2008 comment from Whisenhunt as evidence that pro-Leinart sentiments would not assure a starting job for the 2006 first-round draft choice. Warner became the choice to start in 2008 after Whisenhunt said this about Leinart:

"You see it in his body language, you see how he handles himself in the huddle and then you also see it in the confidence when he takes a step and he throws the football, or even when he makes the checks in the run game. There is not the hesitation that there used to be."

That body language had changed, as if Leinart couldn't believe anyone would question his status as the starter. Leinart had won championships at USC, after all. How dare anyone question him. Whisenhunt questioned him, all right. The manner in which Leinart responded precipitated his release. This divorce could be in the best interests of all parties, at least under the circumstances.