A Giant Mistake

The year was 2004. After week 11, the New York Giants had a 5-5 record and would have entered the playoffs as a Wild Card team had the season ended after 10 games. What head coach Tom Coughlin did next effectively ended the Giants' season; a move that Dennis Green intends to repeat with the Cardinals.

Coughlin benched Kurt Warner in favor of a rookie.

He looked past Warner's 62.8 completion percentage.  He looked pat Warner's league low interception rate.  He disregarded the fact that the NFC was historically weak and would wind up with two 8-8 teams reaching the postseason.

Basically, he cost his team a postseason berth.

Maybe Coughlin was blinded by the incredible rookie season had by Ben Roethlisberger, the phenomenal QB who was drafted ten rounds later than Eli Manning, Coughlin's rookie slated to replace Warner in New York.  Roethisberger took an 8-0 record as a rookie starter into that week 11, so Coughlin may have figured that his higher pick should have been able to match that level of effectiveness.

But it doesn't work that way.  Rookie quarterbacks have an abhorrent track record.  Yes, Roethlisberger was playing well.  But the 2004 Steelers were winning more on the strength of their running game (2nd most rushing yards in football), defense (fewest points allowed in football) and lucky schedule (they faced the Pats without Corey Dillon and the Eagles essentially without Brian Westbrook).

With Warner, the Giants were good enough to get to the playoffs.  With Eli Manning, they were a 1-5 team.

Fast forward nearly two years.  Dennis Green replaces Kurt Warner with rookie quarterback Matt Leinart.  At 1-2, the Cardinals aren't quite in as good of playoff shape as the Giants were back in 2004, but they're in better shape than most people think.  The NFC West has played out to be a tougher division than just about anyone predicted, with the teams going 3-1 against the other divisions.  That includes wins against the Giants and the Broncos, who combined to go 24-8 last year, and were picked by most to be Superbowl contenders again this year.  So the Cardinals shouldn't quite hang their heads in shame for losing two of three to their surprise division.

However, with a passer rating of 87.4, Warner has been almost exactly as effective as he was back in 2004.  Yes, he turned the ball over four times against his former team, but should you judge the man on one bad game, or the 75 excellent ones in his career?  Not to mention the fact that the much improved St. Louis defense had forced six turnovers in their first two games, making the four against the Cardinals hardly out of line.

Matt Leinart doesn't stand a chance of performing well for the Cardinals this year.  He missed most of training camp while holding out for more money.  He looked poised in the preseason, and able to pass underneath against soft defenses.  But he is completely unable to stretch the field with his throwing arm, which is going to make things awfully hard on Edgerrin James.  Worse yet, his first game will come against the Falcons, who with the addition of John Abraham in the offseason have easily the best defensive line in football.  By early next week, Leinart is going to have nightmares involving every kind of dark colored bird.  

Some Giants fans will argue that playing Eli in 2004 accelerated his development and allowed him to finish the 2005 season strong enough to lead the Giants to a division title.  But you could name legions of  quarterbacks who became stars immediately after riding the pine in their first pro season or two, quarterbacks who did not need to hurt their teams with nearly a year of subpar play before becoming stars. 

So benching Warner eliminates any chance the Cardinals had of making the playoffs, or indeed, even winning six games on the year.  It probably doesn't help the development of Matt Leinart any, and could potentially hurt him as he faces extremely tough defenses his first three weeks.  History sometimes has a way of repeating itself, and it got a boost from Dennis Green towards that repetition this week.

Keith Glab is the associate editor of FutureBacks.com and a co-founder of BaseballEvolution.com


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