Leinart's Role as Raider: Advise, Back Up

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ALAMEDA, Calif. - A Matt Leinart bobblehead, with the likeness attired in an Arizona Cardinals uniform, can be found on the Internet at prices ranging from $28 to $80. Leinart may have been a disappointment - the word "bust'' is simply too harsh - but he has not gone unrecognized.

Or, once more, unwanted.

Leinart has joined the Oakland Raiders, as much to advise onetime USC teammate and fellow Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, he says, as finally to prove he is a competent pro quarterback.

At 29, the critics smirking, the chances dwindling, Leinart arrived for the Raiders' spring practices, or "organized team activity,'' with a full understanding of the current situation as well as the previous ones.

How strange the world of sport, full of twists, turns, broken collarbones, unfulfilled potential and subplots that eventually bring a young man to the place he and others believed years ago he would be - meaning the Raiders, if not necessarily in a starring role.

For the last two years of Leinart's six in the NFL, he was with the Houston Texans, where he didn't have the opportunity to do much except learn from quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. So when the Raiders, remodeling their entire organization, brought in Knapp as their new offensive coordinator, Leinart, a free agent, signed on.

"It was a no-brainer,'' Leinart thought.

The good old Raiders, trying to be what they were, a description that also fits Leinart.

They were Al Davis' team for four decades, a one-man operation in an era of designated responsibility. Davis died in October at 82, and after the disbelief ebbed, his son, Mark, talked to the people who knew football and hired Reggie McKenzie of the Packers, a onetime Raider, as general manager. Not only general manager, but a general manager able to make decisions as a general manager never would have done were Davis still in charge.

Davis once told Leinart he wouldn't slip below No. 7 in the 2006 draft, implying the Raiders would take him with that pick. But Leinart did slip and was taken 10th by Arizona. Six years later, he's with Oakland, if as a backup.

Palmer, who gained the Heisman in 2002 and was the first pick in the '03 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, was holding out last fall. After Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell was lost with a broken collarbone, then-coach and sort-of-acting GM Hue Jackson traded draft picks to Cincinnati for Palmer. He'll be the starter.

Leinart, who was Palmer's backup at USC in 2001 and '02, said he knows as much but also knows the West Coast offense Knapp will be implementing.

"Carson has been picking my brain a lot,'' said Leinart. "It's cool. We're comfortable with each other. We've been teammates. We've been friends for 10 years.

"I still want to play. No doubt. If you don't have the competitive desire to play, then you're in the wrong league. It was a bummer last year that I got hurt. I knew coming here I wasn't going to be the starter, but I'll be pushing myself."

Which, say some, he should have done earlier in his career.

Sure, there were the injuries, most notably the broken clavicle in Leinart's second season with the Cardinals. And there was Kurt Warner, who arrived in '06 and two years later led Arizona to Super Bowl XLIII. But also there were reports Leinart was a party guy.

In theory, he had become the Cardinals' No. 1 before the 2010 season, but after the exhibition games Leinart was waived. When coach Ken Whisenhunt was asked what he was looking for, his response was, "First downs."

Said Leinart: "It probably goes beyond football, beyond the field, actually. I just wanted an explanation, and I didn't get one."

What he did get within a few days was a job as the Texans' second-stringer. An injury to Houston starter Matt Schaub in 2011 gave Leinart an opportunity, and he completed 10 of 13 against Jacksonville in November.

Fortune again was cruel. Leinart fractured his throwing shoulder and was done once more.

"I feel great now,'' Leinart said. "I had a great rehab program. The whole offseason was just about getting better."

There's optimism, maybe justified. At least he's back in the state where he won national championships as a collegian.

"I've heard everything,'' Leinart told ESPN Radio in Los Angeles a year ago. "I've seen everything. I haven't proven anything.

"You kind of look at the timeline of what happened, of having a pretty good rookie year and then the second year just getting the injury. Then Kurt Warner. I mean, Kurt Warner played himself into the Hall of Fame."

Leaving Leinart with not much except regrets and his own bobblehead.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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