Matt Leinart so far in college and pro football has made only one important mistake. At USC, when drafted, Leinart agreed to play for the Arizona Cardinals. He would have been better off to sit out a year and re-enter the draft, playing for anyone else.
When still a Trojan, some of us thought Leinart was already the best quarterback in the country, with Carson Palmer second. And the other night, as an NFL rookie playing only his second pro game, Leinart matched his great promise.
After his first nine passes that night, he had completed eight, and his team led, 14-0.
Normally, NFL rookies don't throw two quick touchdown passes.
As rookies, most NFL quarterbacks don't even play much.
Some good ones don't get on the field. But Leinart, with a veteran's poise, dominated the game until the Cardinals, as usual, threw it away. Or rather lost it because they quit throwing. From the second quarter on, fearing turnovers, they tried to sit on a 17-point lead. Thus the Bears, who don't sit on leads, came from behind in the fourth quarter to win, 24-23. Even so, Leinart emerged as one of the best rookie quarterbacks to start an NFL game yet -- possibly the best.___________
Bears and the Luck of Champions
SPORTS FANS seem to be reaching two conclusions about the quality of NFL football this season. First, they agree that there are more contenders this year than usual. But, second, they're saying there's no real standout -- although the upstart Chicago entry, demonstrating the luck of champions as well as the skill, might be moving in that direction.
It's been so long since the Bears have been the league's top dog that it could be awhile before they prove they have the depth and staying power of a champion.
They do seem to be showing the required balance of offensive and defensive strength to go with a tenacious confidence that comes from their coach, Lovie Smith. They're the season's best bet. __________
NFL's Best Teams Passing Teams
IN ALL, the NFL features at least eight very good teams among its 32. There are five from the NFC -- Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Seattle and St. Louis -- strengthening the possibility that the NFC has at last caught and passed the other conference.
The unifying characteristic of the NFC's top five is that all are good passing teams. And so are the AFC's best: New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati (along with, at times, their closely following competition of Pittsburgh, Denver and San Diego).
Across the years, the league hasn't usually housed as many as eight strong Super Bowl candidates as of late October, largely because this is the first time the league has ever had eight good passing clubs. Rarely in other Octobers have more than one or two teams stood out. It's an exciting time to be a football fan. _______________
It's Aggressive Passing That Wins
THE SAINTS AND BEARS are the 2006 surprise top dogs. Few NFL followers expected either of them to be a contender this season, but they and the Rams have become the league's coming teams.
It is their aggressive long-pass offenses that have put all three in a class with Philadelphia and Seattle as the NFL's most competitive and exciting teams -- those that participate regularly in closely played games.
With running back Reggie Bush and Coach Sean Payton, the Saints have been particularly impressive. At Payton's last stop, Dallas Coach Bill Parcells listed him as assistant head coach, an honor that Parcells hasn't routinely awarded to his other offensive coordinators over the years.
To beat the Philadelphia Eagles this week, 27-24, New Orleans ended a 24-24 standoff with the decisive plays, going 72 yards in 16 runs and passes. The Saints' big drive consumed no fewer than the last eight minutes -- not an easy thing to do with a new team and new coach.
Payton would make it even easier on himself and his new team if he'd have quarterback Drew Brees throwing more often to Reggie Bush when the versatile former Trojan lines up at wide receiver.
As present the Saints aren't getting enough out of Bush, who would be a more valuable yardage producer if he were more often deployed here and there -- on and behind the line -- like Brian Westbrook of Philadelphia.__________
Bears and Eagles Throw Long
THE EAGLES are the league's most effective downfield passing team now that they're working in a bunch of long-range threats -- wide receivers Reggie Brown and Hank Baskett along with tight end L.J. Smith. And they still feature runner-receiver Brian Westbrook to keep the defense guessing around the line of scrimmage.
Other examples of teams embracing the long-pass trend are St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati (whenever the Bengals are comparatively free of injuries) and now the Bears.
The widely used West Coast short-pass offense, as introduced a few years ago by the man who brought passing back, former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh, is under siege.
There's nothing wrong with the West Coast except that modern pro clubs have just about mastered the complicated defenses that take away short and middle-range passes.
In so doing, these defenses -- particularly those aligned in the popular Tampa Bay two-deep -- are daring their opponents to throw long.
Accepting the dare, the Eagles have become the game's most persistent long-pass team -- at times throwing and sometimes completing two or three bombs on a given Sunday -- before halftime.
No trend lasts forever, but at present, pleasing thrill-seeking fans, NFL defenses haven't found a sure way to defend long-pass offenses.