NAPA, Calif. — There was a time when Matt Leinart thought he’d wind up with the Oakland Raiders, but he never dreamed he would take the kind of roundabout path he has taken to get here.
The former USC star and Heisman Trophy winner is backing up Carson Palmer with the Raiders — a flashback to their days with the Trojans — and Leinart, once widely projected to make a splash in the pros and possibly be a draft pick of the Raiders, is now grateful to be on a roster.
“I don’t listen to the people who say I’m a bust,” said Leinart, 29, the 10th overall pick by Arizona in 2006 who was released by Houston after two seasons. “Because everyone’s path is different. I admit making mistakes when I was young, not really knowing how to be a pro, not knowing how to study, not knowing what it took.”
Leinart said he understands those requirements now and, in fact, even understood them during his last years in Arizona, when Kurt Warner was entrenched as the starter. Leinart said he “didn’t mesh” with his coaches in Arizona during his four seasons, so he was relieved to join the Texans as a free agent in 2010. He was happier being the third quarterback there, he said, than competing for the starting job in Arizona.
“Going to Houston was the best thing that ever happened to me as far as becoming a better quarterback, getting my confidence back,” he said.
Leinart attributes that mostly to clicking with Coach Gary Kubiak — who understands what it means to back up a Hall of Fame quarterback, as he was John Elway’s understudy in Denver — and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.
Knapp is now installing his same system as offensive coordinator of the Raiders.
“The good thing for me is you don’t need to be a guy that’s going to have to throw the ball 90 yards,” Leinart said. “It’s decision making. It’s something Coach Knapp really harps on us. It’s going through your progressions, but getting the ball out quick and moving the chains. That’s something that suits me.
“I love the bootleg stuff, the getting out of the pocket. That’s something we did a lot of at ‘SC. We hardly did any of that in Arizona. That’s something I’m familiar with and enjoy. And Carson’s the same way.”
Palmer, who also won the Heisman while at USC and was the No. 1 overall pick by Cincinnati in 2003, said being back with Leinart feels somewhat familiar — even though they overlapped for only one season — but better yet he can lean on someone who thoroughly knows Knapp’s offense.
“It’s not that I don’t trust Coach Knapp, or don’t think he knows what he’s talking about,” Palmer said. “It’s just sometimes hard to see a picture and hear it talked about if you can’t watch it unfold on the field and really happen. You don’t want to throw a pick in practice because you’re not 100% on it. I’d much rather somebody else try it, then say, ‘Oh, OK, that does work.’”
Leinart never imagined he’d be that type of guinea pig, and certainly not at this point in his career. When he was coming out of college, he was billed by some respected scouts as the closest prospect to Tom Brady on the horizon.
There were troubling knocks on Leinart in NFL circles — that he was too enamored of the Hollywood scene, more interested in partying than putting in the type of hard work that’s necessary to carve out an NFL career.
But had anyone suggested he would have 17 starts in five seasons, many would have taken the over on that bet.
As for winding up with the Raiders, Leinart thought that might have happened on draft day six years ago. The Raiders had the seventh pick and considered him for that spot before using it on Texas safety Michael Huff.
Leinart’s prime opportunity came last November, after the Texans lost starter Matt Schaub to a broken foot. At 7-3, the Texans had a two-game lead in the AFC South, the league’s No. 1 defense, and the best running game in the conference.
“It was a great situation, almost too good to be true,” Leinart said. “And then it kind of did turn out to be too good to be true.”
Near the end of the first half of his first game as fill-in starter, against Jacksonville, he suffered the second broken collarbone of his career. His season was done.
In March, the Texans released him. Two months later, the Raiders signed him to a one-year deal. There’s no guarantee he will be the backup, although he appears to have the inside track on the No. 2 job over the work-in-progress Terrelle Pryor.
Overall, Leinart said, his bumpy NFL road has been frustrating and humbling but hasn’t drained his confidence.
“I’ve matured so much over the years,” he said. “I understand this game and what it takes to be successful, even though I haven’t had a lot of experience over the last couple of years. For me, it’s hard being a competitor and hard when I, in my opinion, know I can play.
“There’s not any give-up in me. I’m just going to keep playing until I can’t go anymore.”