Just one time since they moved to Arizona in 1988 have the Cardinals spent a first-round draft pick on a quarterback, and it’s fair to say the selection of Matt Leinart 10th overall in 2006 did not work out.
The former Heisman Trophy winner was described as a “gift from Heaven” by then-coach Dennis Green, but instead of becoming the team’s franchise QB and leader for the next decade, Leinart became one of the most controversial players in Cardinals history.
The gap between expectations and results was pretty significant, and it’s why a panel of more than 60 ESPN experts ranked Leinart 25th on their list of Could-Have-Beens, or players who were supposed to be stars and ended up being anything but.
Why was he supposed to be good?
A three-year starter at USC, Leinart ranks No. 3 on the Trojans’ career passing list. He won the 2004 Heisman Trophy as a junior and was the No. 10 overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
Leinart was a star in college, and in three seasons threw for 99 touchdowns and just 23 interceptions. He was viewed as a great leader and, while maybe a bit Hollywood, a player who would steady the most important position on the field for a team that had consistently struggled to find consistency.
Yet, for a variety of reasons — injuries, attitude issues, clashing with head coach Ken Whisenhunt, the resurgence of Kurt Warner — Leinart never really got going in Arizona. While Leinart may have had great potential, the reality was nothing to write home about.
Leinart went 4-7 as a starter his rookie year and was 3-2 in 2007 before suffering a broken collarbone. He was never a No. 1 NFL quarterback again and was released by the Cardinals prior to the 2010 season after getting beat out by Derek Anderson. He also served as a backup for the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders and was out of the NFL after six seasons, 15 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions.
Making matters worse in Arizona was that between the time when Arizona cut Leinart and when the team landed Carson Palmer, the Cardinals went through a QB carousel that included Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton, Richard Bartel, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer, and as the losses mounted fans would wonder if Leinart, had he been given a better opportunity, would have been a better option.
At any rate, no matter who or what deserves blame for Leinart’s struggles in the NFL, there is no denying his career was a letdown for the Cardinals and anyone who felt like he would be an elite passer coming out of college.
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