Rise and shine? Leinart's chance comes with Warner's retirement

Life after Kurt Warner has begun for the Arizona Cardinals, with Matt Leinart stepping into that giant void at quarterback.

Leinart watched for 2½ seasons while Warner took the team to a level of success that long-suffering Cardinals fans had never dared to even imagine: two NFC West championships, consecutive winning seasons and, of course, a Super Bowl XLIII appearance.

In the few chances that Leinart had to play, his performances often were erratic, and fans who once hailed the 2006 first-round draft pick as a savior for the franchise turned on him. But through it all, Leinart has stayed the good soldier, praising Warner, saying he would work hard and would be ready when he received his chance.

For now at least, Leinart has that chance. Whether the Cardinals make any move to add another quarterback remains to be seen.

"We've got plenty of time to sort things out," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said after Warner announced his retirement at a news conference Friday. "Matt's not a rookie. He's been in this offense for three years. He's worked everyday with a guy that was playing at a high a level as anybody in the game and understands a lot more now about what he has to do to prepare in this offense."

Two of Leinart's teammates -- safety Antrel Rolle and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett -- also expressed their confidence in Leinart.

"Leinart, I think his time is up now," Rolle said Saturday during the NFC team's Pro Bowl practice. "I think it's time for him to come out there and produce and be the player that Matt knows he can be and the player that we all know he can be. We're going to be behind him 100 percent of the way."

Said Dockett: "It's a good opportunity to showcase his talents. A lot of people are kind of counting him out, but I think he's going to do a great job. He knows the position should be his, and at the end of the day, he knows he got to work, but he's got some big shoes to fill, and I think he'll do just that."

Leinart made 17 starts in his four NFL seasons, but 16 came in his first two years. Then-coach Dennis Green benched Warner in favor of the rookie Leinart five games into the 2006 season.

When Whisenhunt was hired the following season, Leinart remained the starter, although Warner was increasingly used when Arizona went to a no-huddle offense. When Leinart went down with a broken collarbone five games into the season, Warner took over under center.

Leinart has made one start since then -- this season against the Tennessee Titans when Warner was out with a concussion. Leinart played without the benefit of the practice repetitions that a first-string quarterback normally receives because the decision to hold Warner out came at the last minute.

"What I think back to is the second half in the preseason when he threw for 300 yards," Whisenhunt said.

Of course, that was mostly against Green Bay Packers reserves.

Warner said he knows he's leaving the team with a big hole to fill. He said many people -- "some of them in this room" -- tried to talk him in to returning for the 2010 season.

"I think that was one of the hardest parts of the decision -- knowing an organization, a coaching staff, teammates, how they've counted on you, what a big part of the puzzle you are," Warner said. "There's no question that's the hardest part for me."

If Leinart is the Cardinals' quarterback next season, he will inherit the same talented receivers who caught so many passes from Warner, with one possible exception. Anquan Boldin will enter the final year of his contract, and, with his long-held desire for a bigger deal, a trade becomes a greater possibility.

But Arizona has something that Leinart never did during his days as a starter: a sound and improving running game in Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower. Whisenhunt could well choose to rein in the offense and move toward a greater emphasis on the running game, a tactic he used during his days as the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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