The Buffalo Bills took off on a quarterback scramble Sunday, signing free-agent Matt Leinart, the Heisman Trophy winner and former No. 1 draft choice, and trading for fourth-stringer Thaddeus Lewis of the Detroit Lions.
The moves came in the wake of Saturday’s head injury to veteran Kevin Kolb and reflected a serious concern on the part of the team over Kolb’s long-term health. Kolb suffered from concussion-like symptoms as a result of taking a knee to the back of the head, and it’s at least the third concussion of his career.
With first-round draftee EJ Manuel still recovering from minor knee surgery, the Kolb injury left undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel as the only healthy quarterback on the roster. Tuel is expected to start Thursday’s exhibition finale against Detroit and could start the season opener against New England if Manuel can’t make a particularly quick recovery.
Leinart, 30, gives the Bills desperately needed experience, although his six-year NFL career has been a disappointment.
The moves also put Kolb’s future with the Bills in doubt. It’s rare for a team to keep four quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.
Leinart enjoyed one of the most celebrated college quarterbacking careers ever at the University of Southern California. Besides winning the Heisman in 2004, Leinart helped USC to two national titles, in 2003 and 2004.
Leinart’s NFL career never has gained traction. The Bills will be his fourth team. He is 8-10 for his career as a starter, and he has made only two starts in the last four seasons.
At 6-foot-5, Leinart brings good size and a good arm, although not quite as good as Manuel’s. Leinart is expected to fit in well with the Bills’ quick-passing offense. The Bills’ coaches will have to give him a crash course on the offensive system over the next two weeks in preparation for the Sept. 8 game against the Patriots.
Leinart was the 10th overall pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2006. He got a late start on his rookie training camp after a contractual holdout, then went 4-7 as a starter that season. He entered the 2007 season as the starter and went 3-2. But the Cardinals had Kurt Warner behind him and turned the job over to the veteran. Warner went on to lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in the 2008 season.
Leinart lost the Cards’ starting-job battle to Derek Anderson entering the 2010 season, and he was released. He spent the next two seasons as a backup to Matt Schaub with the Houston Texans. He spent the 2012 season as a backup to Carson Palmer with the Oakland Raiders.
Leinart has not been in a training camp this summer. He had a tryout with Seattle in April, but the Seahawks opted to sign Brady Quinn.
Lewis was acquired in exchange for third-year linebacker Chris White.
If Manuel can’t return for Week One, Lewis provides insurance as a potential third-stringer to open the season.
Lewis was running as the fourth-string quarterback in Detroit and was considered unlikely to beat out third-stringer Kellen Moore.
White was a veteran presence on the Bills’ special teams units. However, he was running with the third team at linebacker. He was an underdog to make the 53-man roster this season. White played in 15 games for the Bills in 2012 but saw only eight snaps all season with the defense. He was third on the team in special-teams tackles with nine.
Lewis was undrafted out of Duke University in 2010. He set Duke records for passing yards (7,931) and touchdown passes (56). He was undrafted because he’s on the short side for an NFL quarterback, at 6-foot-1½ inches, and he doesn’t have elite physical tools. He moves pretty well, but he’s not viewed as a running quarterback.
He spent the 2010 season on the practice squad of the St. Louis Rams. He was a backup for the Cleveland Browns in 2011 and 2012. He got into one game, starting against Pittsburgh in the season finale last year. He completed 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards in a 24-10 loss.