Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
OK, so it's finally been announced: Kurt Warner will start at quarterback for the Cardinals this season.
Wait, no, that was only a Chris Mortensen report. Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt says no decision has been made, and Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic reports that Leinart was finally displaying the fire Monday that the team has been looking for all along. Of course, it appears to have mostly been directed at reporters.
So who will be under center come opening Sunday, when the Cardinals head to San Francisco? Well, it's unlikely that anyone outside of team headquarters knows for sure, and it might well be the case that those inside aren't yet certain either. The smart money at this point would have to be put down on Warner, but the important question is what effect the decision will have on the fantasy fortunes of those in the Arizona passing game.
It's easy to look at the final numbers from last season and deem Warner the clearly better candidate. He finished 2007 with a 62.3 completion percentage to Leinart's 53.6 and threw for 3,417 yards, 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions over 14 games (11 starts). Leinart, on the other hand, compiled just 647 passing yards in his five games to go with two touchdowns and four picks.
Simply looking at the final numbers, however, is to disregard how each player arrived there. Warner left the fantasy world aghast by ending the year with a flurry of touchdown passes, posting five three-score games, including four straight to close the schedule. Four of those, however, came against the putrid pass defenses of Detroit, New Orleans, Atlanta and St. Louis, while the fifth was counterbalanced by five interceptions at Seattle. Leinart, by comparison, faced the Ravens (before everyone got hurt), Seahawks, against whom he posted decent numbers, and Steelers among his five contests.
To be sure, Warner outplayed his apprentice in 2007, including producing better numbers in each of the three games in which both played. It wasn't even close. Let's not forget, though, what preceded 2007.
The year before, it was Warner whose job was being called for early in the season, as he threw just six touchdown passes versus five interceptions over six games (five starts) while giving way to injury and the rookie in Week 4. Leinart was OK for a newbie in his first season, completing 56.8 percent of his passes for 2,547 yards, 11 scores and 12 picks over 12 games (11 starts), despite going without Larry Fitzgerald in his first three starts. Leinart managed to show fans enough that there was no trepidation about him carrying the starting job into 2007.
That was no doubt also due in part to Warner's uneven first year in the desert, when he tossed just 11 touchdowns versus nine interceptions in 2005. In addition, the fumblitis that helped push him out the door in New Jersey hasn't gone away. The former MVP put the ball on the ground nine, 10 and 12 times over his first three seasons with the Cardinals, despite never starting more than 11 games.
Leinart catches a lot of flak both because of his high profile and because young quarterbacks are just supposed to be ready to perform as soon as they take the field these days. To put the unspectacular start to his career in some perspective, though, look back at Peyton Manning's first seasons. The Colts' savior threw 23 or more interceptions in two of his first four seasons, but he was allowed to work through his struggles while staying a full-time starter because the team had nowhere to go but up. Brett Favre spent his second season, and first full one, as a starter matching 24 picks with his 19 touchdowns. John Elway tossed twice as many interceptions as scoring passes in his rookie year, combined 23 picks with 22 touchdowns in his third season and didn't complete 60 percent of his throws in a year until his 11th in the league.
I don't expect the young Cardinal to follow in the footsteps of Elway, Favre and Manning, but I do think it's far too early to be writing him off as some sort of a bust, especially when Leinart has spent his entire young career looking over his shoulder.
All that said, one of the two will be named the starter for 2008. If, as expected, it's Warner, then Fitzgerald should be happy. Although there wasn't much difference between the receiver's numbers with Warner or Leinart throwing in 2006, the contrast was stark last year. Over Leinart's five games, Fitzgerald caught just 15 balls and no touchdown throws from the lefty. In 14 games, however, the quarterbacks split time in three contests, Warner hit Fitzgerald 85 times, connecting for 10 scores. That's more than twice as many completions per game over what Leinart was giving Fitzgerald.
As for those three games in which both quarterbacks threw passes, Fitzgerald caught 24 balls with just five of those coming from the arm of Leinart.
That's probably because Leinart was spending his time searching for Anquan Boldin. In Leinart's first pro start in 2006, albeit with Fitzgerald out because of injury, the rookie quarterback found his favorite receiver 12 times for 136 yards and a touchdown.
Week 3 of 2007 provided another prime example of Leinart's eyes for Boldin. Of the nine passes that Leinart completed, while shuttling in and out with Warner, seven went to Boldin. The relationship isn't necessarily reciprocal, though, as Boldin's numbers overall don't look much different between the two quarterbacks.
So the bottom line is, if Leinart hangs onto the job, Fitzgerald value takes a bit of a hit. If Boldin didn't bring constant injury worry, he'd easily overtake his younger teammate as the team's top fantasy receiver in that situation. As it is, Boldin might still have the edge. If Warner's the man, though, the two stay where they are, with Fitzgerald a decent distance ahead of Boldin, who has yet to score 10 touchdowns in a single season as a pro.
As for the quarterbacks, although I think Leinart is far from finished as a starter, Warner certainly makes for the stronger fantasy play right now. Don't fall over yourself chasing after him in your draft if he does take the job, though. Remember to look at more than just the final results from last year.
Courtesy of Matt Schauf, associate editor and senior fantasy football writer for SportsBuff.com