This is not a chicken little situation, not something that should bring down the entire season, especially considering the Cardinals have signed all of their other picks from the '06 draft, but what is it going to take to get it done? There is no doubt that Leinart would like to be the highest paid quarterback taken in the first round, but it is unrealistic to expect that, and one has to figure the early signs are good ones for the Cardinals first rounder signing soon.
He's purchased a house in the area, he's been working out with the team as recently as late last week, and he's made so grand overtures about what he expects. But Denis Green is continuing to play it close to the vest, and appears to be working in the best interests of the front office when he talks of sitting Leinart for at least a year and even heaping praise on John Navarre.
There will be fans who wish to see Leinart take over right away. There will be fans who point to Warner's 2-8 record last season and ask, 'Why not?' Leinart who has proven himself, if nothing else, a winner. Conventional wisdom says rookie QB's struggle. From Alex Smith to David Carr to, yes, Peyton Manning, first year QB's get knocked around, they get confused, they make mistakes, and not just any mistakes, game changing, game losing mistakes.
The right move is to sit Leinart, let him learn, let him watch, let him get practice reps and learn the system, learn what 'NFL Speed' really is and then move into the starting lineup next year, or perhaps, if Warner can lead the team to the playoffs, even the year after that.
But Navarre? While Green certainly does not have final say in who the Cardinals select on draft day, it stands to reason that if the Cardinals really were as much in love with Navarre as Green claims they are, they would have gone a different direction. It is more than just a matter of shoring up another hole in the roster, it's economics. Though Leinart was the 10th overall pick, he's not going to get #10 money. His star power, his fan appeal, is going to drive up his cost, and the Cardinals know that, and knew it the minute they sent his name up to the podium on draft day. If he isn't the future of the franchise, then he will be a colossal waste of cash.
But if year one is all about learning, then he's got to be in camp, and if he's going to be in camp, the Cards have to sign him.
There is also the matter of Warner's track record. The aging QB hasn't played more than 10 games in a season since 2001, and while much of his injury history could be traced back to weak offensive lines in Arizona and New York, there really isn't any reason to figure on him suddenly becoming an iron man. That means your #2 is going to see time, significant, important, time this year, and if you buy into the previous paragraph, then that mean Mr. Leinart needs to get into camp now.
Vince Young signed his $58 million deal, with nearly $26 million guaranteed, and set the market. Denver signed Jay Cutler's $48 million deal with $11 million in guaranteed money. Leinart is the only first round QB not to have signed, and his deal will likely fall in between the two, but the question is closer to which one? Cutler was taken immediately after Leinart, with Young seven spots ahead. Both deals are for six years, and most assume Leinart's will be as well.
Reports say that negotiations have not gone well, and that the two sides are still miles apart on a deal, but who stands to lose more right now? None of the three QB's are expected to start the season as the #1, though Young will challenge, and Cutler will be a #3. Leinart? Well, Green says #3, but no one, including one has to assume Leinart's representatives, believe him. So the second QB taken, likely to be second on the depth chart, and with a more marketable visage than either of the other two first rounders...
Each side has what it feels is a trump card.
For the Cardinals their trump card came long before draft day. Warner will be better this year for the same reason the Cardinals will be better this year, Edge. The addition of a running game to an offense that was already potent, means that the Cardinals can improve on their 5-11 record without playing Leinart, or even having him on the sideline for that matter.
For Leinart the trump card is even bigger. His reps, and the entire universe for that matter, know the Cardinals must win, and must win now. The addition of Edge and a brand new, sold-out stadium mean that the Cardinals have, for the first time since they got to the desert, the opportunity to establish a fan base. They must do it now. They must win now. Anything less than the Cardinals entering Week 17 with a chance to make the playoffs will be an incredible let down for this city and the organization. The new stadium and the new additions have opened a window the Cardinals' front office has never even been allowed to look out of, must less feel the breeze from.
A recent conversation with a Cardinals fan went like this:
Me: What kind of time line do you expect?
Fan: Simple. Playoffs, or pretty close to it, this year. Deep into the playoffs next year. Super Bowl, in our new stadium, in '08.
Me: And who is the QB in that Super Bowl?
Fan: Duh. Matt Leinart.
Get it done is the simple answer, and far too simple when guaranteed money, salary cap, roster size and the myriad other factors come into play, but for the Cardinals the final decision has to factor in one more thing.
Public Relations. Traditionally, the Cardinals PR has, to put it bluntly, sucked. They haven't won, they haven't signed free agents, they have demanded, and finally gotten a stadium at tax payers expense despite going to the playoffs only once in the last 10 years. They have been riding a wave of good publicity, but cracks in that armor are already starting to appear, after demanding a $200, non-refundable deposit for season tickets that were not guaranteed the Cardinals have now shut down training camp on the weekends. While the move is ostensibly to help prevent another injury filled season, Phoenix area fans who work for a living have essentially been shut out of training camp.
Will they care? Not if the Cards win, but until that happens, they don't need another bitter taste in their mouths. Like the one that comes with a long holdout.