Though Matt Leinart once was a Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft pick, the former USC standout knows his role on the Oakland Raiders is to be Carson Palmer’s understudy.
Leinart, at 29, is entering his seventh season in the NFL and has had an inconsistent and injury-marred pro career.
When he signed with the Raiders in May, the Raiders were interested in him because he has experience and knows the offense that will be run by coordinator Greg Knapp. Leinart and Knapp were together the past two seasons in Houston, where both were employed by the Texans.
With only quarterback Terrelle Pryor on their roster coming out of last season – a raw prospect who’s never thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game – the Raiders needed a veteran who could step in to Palmer’s job should Leinart's former USC teammate get injured in 2012.
Also, because Leinart knows the offense, he’s been able to help Palmer learn its intricacies. It’s a turnaround from their roles in college, where Palmer, three years older and also a Heisman winner, tutored Leinart in the Trojans offense.
“It’s an interesting turn of events,” Leinart told reporters earlier this training camp. “To be with Carson again, it’s crazy. It’s 10 years removed since he left USC. It’s 10 years, we’re back together, which is fun. It’s interesting because Carson’s been around the game a long time, (but) for me, being part of this offense a few years, I’m still competing my butt off, but this is the first year I’ve really felt like that veteran leader.”
Though Leinart suffered a cut to a finger on his right (non-throwing) hand in Friday night’s exhbition loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Leinart isn’t expected to miss any playing time in this Saturday’s third exhibition game against the Detroit Lions.
So far, Leinart has played well for the Raiders, showing a firm grasp of the playbook and a good rapport with the receivers, especially rookie Rod Streater.
In Leinart’s first game against the Dallas Cowboys, he completed 11 of 16 throws for 98 yards – with six of those completions going to Streater.
Head coach Dennis Allen liked the way Leinart handled the offense.
“I thought he ran the offense well,” Allen told the Sacramento Bee’s Jason Jones. “I thought he executed. I thought he threw the ball well, took what the defense gave him. He took command of the huddle and commanded the offense, so I was pleased with where he was at.”
Against the Cardinals, Leinart was 5-of-8 for 66 yards.
Last season, Leinart had a chance to start for the Texans after No. 1 QB Matt Schaub’s season ended prematurely with a foot injury in November. But in his first start for the Texans, Leinart also suffered a season-ending injury, to his left shoulder.
He had completed 10 of 13 throws for 57 yards and a TD and called the injury – one of many he’s suffered – “tough to swallow.”
Now, he’s getting a chance to play an important role on the Raiders this season backing up Palmer. With Pryor still not ready, Leinart will need to be.
The injury to his finger Saturday night shouldn’t slow him down, he says.
“I should be OK,” Leinart told reporters after the game Friday night. “It’s not my throwing hand, so we’ll see what happens. I’ll just look at the film and try to get back as soon as I can.”