In an oft-replayed television commercial, legendary quarterback Archie Manning pretends to adopt former USC quarterback Matt Leinart, telling his real children, current NFL quarterbacks Eli and Payton Manning, “I always wanted a lefty.”
Coming out of USC, it did not seem unrealistic for Leinart to follow in the professional footsteps of the Manning brothers.
In college, Leinart was awarded the Heisman Trophy while leading USC to consecutive national championships (an Associated Press title in 2003 and a BCS title in 2004) — accomplishments neither Manning brother ever achieved.
Yet, five years into his NFL career, Leinart has not appeared in more than eight games in a season since his rookie season with the Arizona Cardinals in 2006, and has thrown more interceptions (20) than touchdowns (14) as a professional.
“My career has been like a roller coaster,” Leinart said. “You never know what is going to happen next.”
Leinart was on USC’s campus last week to speak on a panel at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism titled, “For The Good Of The Game: The NFL At A Crossroads.” The panel also included New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and sports agent Leigh Steinberg.
If any player is at a crossroads, it is Leinart, who is desperately seeking a starting position after spending much of his professional career as a backup.
“A lot of football is about being in the right situation at the right time with the right kind of people,” said Leinart, who after being the No. 10 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft, saw a coaching change in Arizona from Dennis Green to Ken Whisenhunt. “People get so few opportunities in the NFL. They do not come around very often.”
Leinart, however, is accustomed to having to wait for opportunities.
Playing behind Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, Leinart redshirted his first year at USC and did not throw a pass as redshirt freshman in 2001.
Leinart contemplated transferring, but ultimately decided to stay at USC and was named the starting quarterback his sophomore year. He threw a touchdown to Mike Williams on his first career pass attempt.
“Obviously, staying at USC worked out great for me,” Leinart said.
In the NFL, Leinart was stuck for much of his early career playing behind Kurt Warner, who led the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl appearance in team history.
Following Warner’s retirement after the 2009 season, Leinart was beat out by Derek Anderson for the starting job, and as a result, was released by the team before signing with the Houston Texans to backup Matt Schaub.
Leinart benefited from the change of scenery in Houston. Although he did not attempt a pass with the Texans, he regained the belief in his abilities that was wavering as he sat on the bench in Arizona.
“Houston helped me get my confidence back, being around great coaches and a great team,” Leinart said. “It has jumpstarted me this offseason.”
Because of the current NFL lockout, players are barred from signing contracts with any team. Therefore, even though Leinart is a free agent, he can only wait to find out which team he will play for next.
“I am not going to give up,” Leinart said. “I am not going to say it has been unfair, but I am just hoping for the opportunity to come.”
Critics have argued Leinart has not demonstrated the necessary dedication to be a successful NFL starting quarterback. Much has been written about his off-the-field behavior, including conflicts with coaches and work ethic after photos were captured in 2008 of Leinart partying at his Scottsdale, Ariz. home with Arizona State co-eds.
“You can either give in to all of the criticism, or you can use it as fuel and motivation,” Leinart said. “I know what I can do. I am just waiting for the opportunity to go show it.”
But Leinart, who has proved skeptics wrong in the past, is salivating at the chance to be able to do it again.
“I have had a lot of learning experiences and ups and downs, but I know that I have grown as a player and as a person, on and off the football field,” Leinart said. “I am totally ready to take advantage of the next opportunity I get.”