On just about any other day, the acquisition of a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback would have been the story coming out of a preseason practice.
But that wasn’t the case Monday with the Buffalo Bills and Matt Leinart – as good an indication as any of just how far the former Southern California star has fallen.
Leinart’s first practice with the Bills took a back seat to the absences of Stephon Gilmore (due to injury) and C.J. Spiller (for family reasons), the first public comments of Jairus Byrd and the updates on the health of quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb – the reason Leinart finds himself in Western New York to begin with.
“I had a feeling I’m probably not gonna get picked up until something happens. I’m not naive about that,” said Leinart, who was working out on his own in his native California before the Bills called over the weekend. “For me, it was just staying focused and just constantly grinding away and grinding away and always being ready.”
Leinart, 30, never lost faith the phone would eventually ring.
“I know I’ve still got a lot of football left in me,” he said, “and this business, as you guys all know, is as crazy as it can be – especially at the quarterback position. You just never know what can happen. So my main focus was to just keep my head down and keep working and keep chipping away and hope for an opportunity. That’s all you can do.
“Obviously I know nothing is guaranteed ever, but I’m just happy to be here. I’m excited to be playing football. I was getting bored. The monotony every day, the same thing … it’s exciting just to be with the guys and to be playing. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
Leinart, who’s entering his eighth NFL season, sounded like a mature player Monday, one who has, in his words, been “humbled” by finding himself without a team when training camps started this summer.
“That’s part of the business. I’m mature enough and I’ve been through enough to understand that,” he said. “It was a humbling experience because I’ve never been through that before. I’ve seen the worst in this league. I’ve seen some pretty good highs in this league. I’ve been through a lot.”
Leinart’s professional career began when the Arizona Cardinals made him the 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft. He was coming off a remarkable three-year run at USC in which the Trojans went 37-2 and won two national championships.
He was, at the time, one of the most recognizable football players in America.
Leinart, though, battled injuries in his first two seasons with Arizona – a sprained shoulder as a rookie and a fractured collarbone in his second year – and then lost his job to Kurt Warner in the years that followed.
“I’d be the first one to tell you guys that I did not expect to go in this way,” he said.
As with any first-round pick, the weight of expectations was heavy on Leinart. But he says that pressure did not get to him with the Cardinals.
“I never looked at it as pressure. For some reason, I just didn’t,” he said. “I mean, we had the highest pressure in college and we performed at a high level.”
And then when I went to Arizona, I didn’t really feel the pressure. It was for other reasons, a lot of variety of reasons, that it didn’t work out there that I’m not going to even get into because that was years ago. I lacked confidence, which I never lacked before that. That was something that affected me big time as a football player.”
Asked whether the confidence was beaten out of him, Leinart was quick to respond: “I had a lot beaten out of me in Arizona.”
Denny Green coached the Cardinals in Leinart’s first year. In 2007, the team replaced Green with Ken Whisenhunt.
“Coach Whisenhunt came in and we didn’t see eye-to-eye on some stuff,” Leinart said. “Then I got hurt and Kurt Warner, who’s a great friend of mine, took over and has a Hall of Fame career. For me, there wasn’t a lot I could do. I was trying. I competed with Kurt multiple training camps neck-and-neck. I was confident, and then it just slowly went downhill and it was an uphill battle that I couldn’t win.”
Leinart was released by the Cardinals before the start of the 2010 season after losing a quarterback competition to Derek Anderson. He said the divorce was in the best interests of both parties.
Leinart landed in Houston, and although he played in only two games over two seasons, he credits coach Gary Kubiak and former Texans quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp for helping him restore confidence in his career.
Leinart stepped into the lineup for the Texans after Matt Schaub was hurt in Week 10 of the 2011 season, but his stay would be short.
In his first start with Houston, he suffered a broken collarbone and was lost for the season. The Texans went on to finish the year 10-6 under third-string quarterback T.J. Yates and lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to Baltimore.
“Talk about lows. That was one of the toughest times of my career was getting an opportunity to start on one of the best teams in football in Houston in an offense I loved and I knew I could run,” Leinart said.
“Having the injury when I knew it was a playoff team … that was tough to watch. I was happy for T.J., he’s a great kid, but that was a tough time for me just because it was like, ‘Why?! This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for for two, three years,’ just taken away from me like that. That’s part of it and I’ve moved on from that.”
Leinart spent the 2012 season as a backup with the Oakland Raiders.
He comes to Buffalo with nothing to lose and with the belief that he can still make it in the NFL.
“I still have high expectations for myself. That’s just the type of person and player I am. I still believe if I can get a shot, who knows what can happen? That’s still in my mind, and you have to have that mind-set or else you’ll get washed out of this league very fast,” he said.
“I believe everything happens for a reason, and now I’m here.”
Leinart will get the opportunity for extensive playing time Thursday in the team’s preseason finale against the Detroit Lions at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Rookie Jeff Tuel is expected to start the game, but will likely play only a series or two as the team needs to keep him healthy for the season opener.
That will leave Leinart and Thaddeus Lewis – who was acquired in a trade Sunday with Detroit – to make an impression on Bills coach Doug Marrone.
“I just want them to perform,” Marrone said. “We’re all going to be looking for the same thing. Who is going to be able to move the offense? Who’s going to perform? We know that we’ve got the effort; we’ve got the time put in by those guys.”