Passing on Lefty

Moments before the Raiders made their first selection in the NFL draft, a team employee stood watching a television monitor and noticed that quarterback Matt Leinart was still available.

"That's not what Al wants to see," said the employee in reference to team owner Al Davis, the conductor and engineer of the Raiders' draft decisions.

Seeing Leinart — widely considered the most polished and NFL-ready quarterback available in this year's draft — still available seemed almost too good to be true for Oakland, which has been starved for a quality quarterback since Rich Gannon took his broken neck into the broadcasting booth in 2004. Sitting with the No. 7 pick, the Raiders weren't sure they'd have a shot at a quarterback. Sure, there'd been a great deal of discussion about Texas' Vince Young but as draft day drew closer it became clear that the Rose Bowl star would be snapped up long before Oakland had a chance to get him. Tennessee, which has its own quarterback issues after giving Steve McNair the cold shoulder treatment this offseason, made sure of it by drafting Young with the No. 3 pick. Surprisingly, the quandary for Davis and the Raiders wasn't whether or not to take the left-handed Leinart. The spin came in trying to convince the paying public (i.e. the Raider Nation) that not taking Leinart was the right move, that using a first-round pick on a defensive back for the fifth time in six years shouldn't be seen as yet another of Al's head-scratching moves.

Problem is, it's going to be a tough sell. The people who trudge their way into the Oakland Coliseum each Sunday might be guilty of drinking the Silver and Black Kool-Aid a bit too much but they're no fools — well, save, maybe, for that whole PSL thing, but that's another story.

Getting a player like Leinart would have brought a ray of hope to the faithful who painfully endured two seasons of Kerry Collins and now stare at the likelihood of seeing the offense run by a quarterback (Aaron Brooks) who was run out of New Orleans.

Though he doesn't have great arm strength, Leinart — most experts agree — is the quarterback most ready to make the move from college to the pros. That he was still sitting there when the Raiders went on the clock was more than a bit shocking, though not all entirely unexpected considering how drafts tend to go anyway.

It seemed perfect for the Raiders. They could get their franchise quarterback for the future, a left-hander with a Heisman Trophy to his name, and sell a few more tickets along the way.

Leinart had been the dark horse in the Oakland draft sweepstakes. Young was the popular choice, Texas safety Michael Huff the safe pick and any of the other Top 5 players were no-brainers should they fall into the Raiders' lap.

Yet as the time came to make the selection, Davis couldn't bring himself to use it on Leinart. The last time he rolled the dice on a quarterback in the first round, the results were devastating not only to said quarterback (Todd Marinovich) but to the organization as well.

Not that a comparison could be nor should be made between the two. All indications are that Leinart is as grounded and level-headed as they come, a fact making Davis's decision to pass him over all the more dicey.

In fact, you probably couldn't meet two polar opposite people or athletes. But where they were similar is in their lack of ability to make the deep throw, something Davis was willing to overlook with Marinovich but apparently not so eager to do with Leinart.

It's a curious call because Gannon wasn't exactly blessed with a rocket arm, but was intelligent enough to use what was available to him and developed into the 2002 NFL MVP.

Is it an indication the Raiders believe they already have their quarterback of the future in second-year player Andrew Walter? Quite possibly, though no one can really be quite sure what to expect from the former Arizona State Sun Devil, who spent his rookie season mending from shoulder and groin injuries, the latter of which required surgery in the offseason.

Aaron Brooks? We'll give him the mobility factor over Kerry Collins but there's been nothing in his history to suggest he can lead the Raiders back to playoff prominence.

That's why the decision to pass on Leinart was at least an intriguing one.

"There were a number of players that we felt were outstanding at the top of the draft," Shell said. "Matt Leinart, of course, was one of those guys. But Michael Huff was rated very high by our football staff. We really feel good about this kid and we're excited about drafting him where we drafted him. He's going to bring a lot to our football team. It's good for our football team to have Michael Huff with us.

"We considered all the players. Every last one of them at the top. All the guys that were taken, there was a lot of discussion about every last one of them. And all of them were deserving of being drafted at the pick that we had."

To be certain, using the pick on Huff wasn't a bad move at all. Given the problems the Raiders have had in the secondary over the last few years, it's a logical choice. But logic doesn't put seats in the stands, at least not when a quarterback many expect to become an NFL starter very soon is there for the taking.

Huff is an athletic, fast and rangy player who will likely take over in the strong safety/rover role left vacant by the departure of Charles Woodson. He can also play cornerback, which is a nice luxury to have considering the jury's still out on Fabian Washington and, to a degree, Nnamdi Asomugha.

But is Huff a sure thing? No one can be certain, just as is the case with Leinart. But if the former fails while the latter succeeds, you can be sure Davis will remember this draft for a long, long time.


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