<
>

Cardinals' identity changes with Leinart

1/29/2010

Kurt Warner joked during his retirement news conference that Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt wanted to run the ball every play with three tight ends and two running backs.

Warner was using exaggeration to laud Whisenhunt's flexibility.

Now that Warner is finished, though, we should expect the Cardinals' offense to become more run-oriented.

Matt Leinart will start at quarterback unless the Cardinals sign a free-agent veteran to compete for the job. Leinart was the player Arizona envisioned as its starter when Whisenhunt arrived as head coach for the 2007 season. The team was assembling personnel as though Leinart would be leading an offense with a power running game. Tackle Levi Brown, drafted fifth overall in 2007, lined up on the right side in part to protect the left-handed Leinart's blind side.

The plan changed when Warner emerged as the starter right before the 2008 season.

While Whisenhunt changed the offense to suit Warner's strengths as a shotgun passer, the Cardinals have continued adding personnel with the longer-range future in mind. Beanie Wells, chosen 31st overall in 2009, gave the Cardinals a big, physical running back to pair with Tim Hightower. Tackle Herman Johnson, a promising fifth-round choice in 2009, also fit the power mold.

Whisenhunt and the offensive staff generally did a good job blending those power elements into a pass-oriented offense.

Arizona still has the wide receivers in place to spread the field and pass the ball frequently. Anquan Boldin is entering the final year of his contract, though, and the team could trade him. Leinart isn't nearly as adept as Warner at anticipating throws and throwing accurately against pressure.

Whisenhunt and the coaching staff deserve credit for getting the most from Warner. They named him the starter in 2008 only after Warner demonstrated he would not be so careless with the football. In retrospect, naming Warner the starter unconditionally would have been a mistake. Warner learned to adapt his freewheeling, Mike Martz-inspired mindset to an offense with more conventional philosophical roots.

The next coaching challenge for Arizona becomes finding a way to get the most from Leinart. Leinart has talent. The Cardinals won three of his final four rookie starts in 2006, with Leinart posting passer ratings of 100.3, 89.3 and 137.3 in those games. Leinart completed 23 of 37 passes for 299 yards, one touchdown and one interception during a 23-20 victory over the Seahawks in Week 2 of the 2007 season.

Injury wrecked Leinart's 2007 season. Warner took over and threw more touchdown passes than any NFL player, even Tom Brady, during the second half of that season.

Leinart has started only one of the Cardinals' past 43 regular-season games. He didn't look good in relief this past season.

Warner's retirement dramatically lowers outside expectations for the Cardinals. The 49ers will emerge as favorites among some, but as Warner pointed out during his retirement news conference, perceptions aren't always correct.

Leinart is no Warner, yet I'm not sure the Cardinals would trade him for any other quarterback in the division, either.