When Peyton Manning threw three interceptions in his first NFL start, Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora Sr. didn’t flinch. Mora’s reaction was the same the next week, when Manning threw three more interceptions. And the week after that, when Manning tossed two, and the week after that when Manning had three more picks.
The Colts were battered in an 0-4 start, outscored 116-40. Yet Mora’s message to Manning never changed.
“Hang in there,” Mora told his rookie quarterback. “I don’t care how many interceptions you throw, you are our quarterback.”
“There was never any question,” Mora said, “that he was our guy.”
Manning had been the No. 1 pick in the entire draft. He was always going to play immediately. But given a choice to play a rookie QB, even Mora admitted “I’d rather not.”
The Cardinals had the same thought this season, when coach Dennis Green insisted he wanted Matt Leinart to sit on the bench all season while watching veteran Kurt Warner. That lasted four games, and today, when the Cards host Kansas City, Leinart will start for the first time.
Expectations, given Leinart’s background, are lofty.
History says they probably shouldn’t be.
“You hope you used the No. 1 pick on the right (quarterback), not on someone where failure will destroy him mentally,” Mora said. “Because he will have a difficult time.”
HOPE FOR THE BEST
Only two rookie quarterbacks in recent NFL history have stepped in and played consistently well: Miami’s Dan Marino in 1983 and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.
In both cases, the players ended up as starters after the season began. Both ended up with passing ratings of at least 96.0, and led their teams to the playoffs.
But the vast majority of teams playing rookie quarterbacks have struggled with wins and losses.
That’s why Bill Cowher, who was forced to turn to Roethlisberger when Tommy Maddox got hurt, said a coach must be careful when deciding to turn the keys of the franchise over to a rookie.
“You never want to prioritize one person’s development at the expense of the team, regardless of what the record is,” Cowher said. “You have too many people out there you’re asking to play week-to-week and sacrifice a lot, so to prioritize one person’s development is sending the wrong message.”
Usually, a rookie quarterback is playing because there isn’t much hope to make the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, that is the direction they have been heading.
Green’s intention was to sit Leinart, but after Kurt Warner fumbled 10 times and threw five interceptions in four games, the coach’s thought process changed.
“If Matt just holds on to the ball, he will have achieved expectations,” said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, now an ESPN analyst.
“Kurt Warner has been an effective quarterback without the fumbles, but (the fumbling) has become a liability. As far as (the players in) the locker room, all they care about is the performance on the field.”
Of course, that’s the issue.
Leinart sparkled in the preseason, posting a 95.5 passing rating in three games and avoiding any interceptions. But against Atlanta last week, Leinart lost a fumble and had an interception in a quarter of play.
The last time the Cardinals started a heralded rookie, Jake Plummer was roughed up at home by Tennessee. Plummer was 21-for-40 for 195 yards that day, with two touchdowns, four interceptions and six sacks.
Vince Young, the quarterback Tennessee chose third instead of Leinart, got his first start last week. Not only did Young struggle to a 47.3 passing rating with two interceptions, his vaunted running game was invisible. Young gained a mere three yards on five carries.
“In Matt’s situation, I think he is special,” Cardinals vice president of football operations Rod Graves said. “I think he will be ahead of the curve when it comes to the limitations you place on younger quarterbacks. That’s my belief about him.”
LEARNING ON THE JOB
Cardinals quarterbacks coach Mike Kruczek went 6-0 as a rookie starter for the Steelers after Terry Bradshaw was hurt in 1976. Kruczek’s situation was easier than Leinart’s, given the Steelers’ stellar defense — three shutouts and only 25 points allowed in those six starts — and great running game.
But, Kruczek said, “I went out like he is, with energy and optimism and enthusiasm. He had a big smile going into the game last week (in Atlanta) and that won’t change.
“He understands the circumstances . . . but the game is slow for him, from what I have seen.”
The overwhelming sense from Leinart is that he is itching to show he can play on this level. He still burns from the criticisms leveled at him prior to and just after the draft.
Leinart has talked to fellow USC alum Carson Palmer — who sat his rookie season — and is like most quarterbacks who enter the NFL: He’d rather play as a rookie than not.
“You don’t learn anything being on the sideline,” said Atlanta’s Michael Vick, who only started twice as a rookie but did play in eight games.
“Everybody’s going to make their mistakes,” said Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich, a one-time rookie starter. “One thing, just never lose confidence. (Leinart) is not a guy that looks like he will.”
Leinart has spoken often of his confidence. He acknowledged he will learn that, unlike college, “you don’t have those cakewalk games sometimes” in the NFL.
It’s a lesson that will be hammered home early when the Cardinals face the NFL’s third-ranked defense today with the Chiefs and the fourthranked defense next game against Chicago.
“I just (want to) be a leader, basically,” Leinart said. “That’s all you can really do as a quarterback.”
Pitfalls are inevitable. Former NFL quarterback Sean Salisbury, now an ESPN analyst, said Leinart can’t get caught up in trying to be a savior. That may be difficult with the Cardinals trying to salvage what was supposed to be a playoff-contending season.
Salisbury dismissed the notion the Cards were cashing in the season by playing Leinart. He also noted some quarterback greats who had rocky rookie showings.
“Aikman was 0-10 in his first 10 starts. Elway was booed. Peyton led the league in interceptions,” Salisbury said. “But I want to find out early if my quarterback can play.”
Mora found out that Manning could weather his rough start. The Colts went 3-13 Manning’s first year. The next year, Indianapolis — with a rookie running back named Edgerrin James — went 13-3.
The Cardinals would take that kind of progress.
“The key is just trying to find a way to get better,” Manning said. “Maybe the game has already been decided (but) you still keep learning and you keep playing because you realize it’s going to make you a better player in the long run.”