Bills hope not to get buffaloed by Matt Leinart signing

Buffalo Bills quarterbacks Jeff Tuel, left, and Matt Leinart take part in a team practice session Monday. Leinart hopes to make an impact with the quarterback-needy Bills.
(Derek Gee / Associated Press)

With the play clock on the NFL exhibition season winding toward zero, the Buffalo Bills picked up the phone over the weekend and added quarterback Matt Leinart to their roster, reviving his once-promising football career.

Leinart and the Bills have something in common.

They both know that disoriented feeling of the world going topsy-turvy.

The Bills are in the midst of that now. They have lost their top two quarterbacks — first-round pick EJ Manuel to a knee injury and veteran Kevin Kolb to a concussion — and are preparing to start an undrafted rookie from Washington State, Jeff Tuel, against the New England Patriots in Week 1.

That would make NFL history because, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, no undrafted rookie quarterback has started an opener since the league went to a common draft in 1967.

Leinart, a Heisman Trophy winner from USC, is all too familiar with those twists of misfortune, self-inflicted or otherwise.


His NFL career started in Arizona as the 10th pick of the 2006 draft who some scouts compared to a young Tom Brady. This summer that career seemed to be coming to an end as an often-injured journeyman who found himself waiting by the phone — an experience he called “humbling” — in hopes of another opportunity.

“I’ve seen the worst in this league,” Leinart told reporters in Buffalo on Monday. “I’ve seen some pretty good highs in this league. I’ve been through a lot.”

The situation in Buffalo is bizarre and desperate, although you wouldn’t know it from the comments of first-year Coach Doug Marrone. He outwardly is taking a business-as-usual approach to already being down to a third-string player at the most important position. Marrone referred to the possibility of Tuel starting against the Patriots, a franchise that has won or shared each of the last 10 AFC East titles, “exciting” and “fun.”

“It’s exciting to get out there and play,” Marrone said. “It’s a great opportunity for him if that’s what presents itself.”

There is a possibility that Manuel, the 16th overall pick, will be able to return for Week 1. He had a minor procedure on his left knee last week.

“Right now we’re planning on Jeff Tuel playing the first game and we’re working with EJ to get back as quickly as possible,” Marrone said. “Meaning New England. Right now that’s how we’re going about planning on doing it until we know more about where EJ is.”

That means there is a window of opportunity for Leinart, whose career was sidetracked in Arizona by a broken collarbone and the re-emergence of Kurt Warner. Another chance fizzled in Houston when he suffered a second broken collarbone after replacing the injured starter. Last season in Oakland he served as the backup to Carson Palmer.

“I’m excited for Matt,” Palmer said Monday, adding, “It’s too bad it didn’t happen a little bit earlier so he’d have a chance to get in there [as the starter in the opener]. But I think he’ll do well. I hope he gets a shot.”

Leinart, asked whether he had his confidence beaten out of him in Arizona, said: “I had a lot beaten out of me in Arizona.

“A lot of things happened. I was drafted by Denny Green, and then Coach [Ken] Whisenhunt came in and we didn’t see eye to eye on some stuff. Then I got hurt and Kurt Warner, who’s a great friend of mine, took over and has a Hall of Fame career. For me, there wasn’t a lot I could do. I was trying. I competed with Kurt multiple training camps, neck and neck.

“I was confident, and then it just slowly went downhill.”

When he became the starter in Houston, it quickly went downhill. Ten games into the 2011 season, the Texans were 7-3 with a two-game lead in the AFC South. They had the league’s No. 1 defense and the best running game in the AFC. They were on their way to a big finish, but lost quarterback Matt Schaub to a broken foot.

It was an ideal chance for Leinart to lead the team to the playoffs, and maybe more. But in the second quarter of Leinart’s first game, he suffered a broken left collarbone. T.J. Yates, an undrafted rookie, took over for Leinart and wound up finishing the season and leading the Texans to their first playoff victory.

“Trust me, talk about lows,” said Leinart, who recently turned down an interview request by The Times, saying he didn’t want to talk until he landed with a team. “That was one of the toughest times of my career. … That was tough to watch. I was happy for T.J., he’s a great kid, but that was a tough time for me because it was like, ‘Why?’ ”

The question now rests with the Bills: Is Leinart a quarterback they want on their roster?

Marrone was interested in him in 2006, when Leinart was coming out of USC and Marrone was offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints, who used the No. 2 pick on Trojans star Reggie Bush.

The Saints, who didn’t have Drew Brees at the time, “put a lot of work into Matt,” Marrone said. “I have a very good feel of who he was coming out. I don’t know now. There’s been a lot of time.”

Leinart might argue that all that time has its benefits.

“I still have high expectations for myself,” he said. “That’s just the type of person and player I am. I still believe if I can get a shot, who knows what can happen. That’s still in my mind, and you have to have that mindset or else you’ll get washed out of this league very fast.”

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer