If you were there that evening three years ago, at the feet of the hills outside Pasadena, Calif., you just knew you were watching a beginning – not an end.
If you were there at the Rose Bowl, as the drama folded, refolded and unfolded again, you were convinced you were seeing the debut of the next great quarterback rivalry.
If you were there, as the final heart-stopping seconds ensued, you would have bet your pre-real-estate-collapse home that Southern California’s Matt Leinart and Texas’ Vince Young would be the faces of quarterback greatness for at least the next decade.
I was there, and you could not have done anything to persuade me that night that, three years later, Leinart and Young would be near-bust NFL benchwarmers today.
The two young men who starred in perhaps the greatest Rose Bowl ever have thrown just eight passes this season (all eight of them by Leinart). Three years and three weeks into their pro careers, they’re clipboard-hugging also-rans.
Both men back up guys almost old enough to be their dads. In Arizona, Leinart sits behind 38-year-old Kurt Warner, while Young shags for Tennessee’s Kerry Collins, 36.
But maybe not for long.
The Cardinals and Titans – teams which reached the playoffs in ’08, with the Cardinals going to the Super Bowl – are an abysmal 1-5, collectively. And the whispers have begun.
Of course, the reasons for their woeful starts extend beyond the men behind center. Neither man, however, has shined this season (Warner’s QB rating is 83.5; Collins languishes at 69.9, fifth from worst ahead of now-benched Brady Quinn of Cleveland, Detroit rookie Matt Stafford, Carolina’s Jake Delhomme and JaMarcus Russell of the Raiders).
Not surprisingly, Warner’s at least chewing up air yardage, passing for 287.7 yards per game (fourth in the NFL). Collins, though, has been dreadful, completing only 55 percent of his passes – and with as many interceptions (4) as touchdowns (4), he’s truly thankful for Delhomme (2 TDs, 7 INTs)
It’s too early to punch the proverbial panic button, but Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt and Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher need to keep the sucker close by.
The Cardinals can draw on recent experience. They were 2-2 last season before crawling into the playoffs and engineering a stunning run that got them to the Super Bowl. And they still have two of the most dangerous weapons in the game in wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
The Titans, conversely, are in a funk. They’ve lost five straight games (including the playoffs) since starting last season 13-2 and are dangerously close to a hole from which the postseason is all but an impossibility.
If their respective fortunes don’t change soon – very soon – the franchises will have to make the call to turn it over to Leinart and Young. Not so much because their seasons would be “over,” but because both men might be the injection of energy the teams need to mount a revival.
That is much more likely with Young, a former NFL Rookie of the Year. Leinart, who failed to hold off Warner in the summer of 2008, spent his offseason improving his conditioning and vowed to spend more time practicing than partying – finally.
But maybe the most important reason for playing the youngins’ is to see, once and forever, if they can, well, play. If Leinart and Young are not capable of being the future of their respective franchises – as they were drafted to be – then the teams need to know now.
And if that’s the case, then they’re a lot worse off than their abysmal records. A lot.
Follow Johnson on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/roysj
Photos by AP