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Can Matt Leinart Prevent the Texans Ship from Sinking?

When Matt Schaub was pronounced out for the year following a foot injury that he suffered on a quarterback sneak in Sunday’s 37-9 Texans win over the Buccaneers, the general narrative became that the team was screwed as it transitioned from Schaub to colossal bust Matt Leinart. This view was shared by CBS’s Mike Freeman:

Anyone who believes Matt Leinart will lead the Texans to a Super Bowl post-Schaub hasn’t seen him play. He is easily one of the worst quarterbacks I’ve seen in the last three years or so in the NFL. He is painfully inaccurate, has no pocket presence, very little arm strength and isn’t a leader. Other than that, he’ll be just fine.

Does this injury lower the Texans’ ceiling? Probably. But does it end their season? I don’t think so.

Matt Leinart is not coming in and replacing Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Ben Roethlisberger; Matt Schaub is a very good quarterback but he is not elite. He ranks 8th this season in Total QBR behind the aforementioned superstars as well as Tony Romo, Matt Hasselbeck, and Eli Manning. While the Texans are 7-3 this year and Schaub has played very well, Schaub is 32-34 in his career as a starter. He was nowhere near a safe bet to lead this team to the Super Bowl.

Leinart is not being asked to be the organization’s savior; he takes over a 7-3 Texans squad that has a 1.5 game lead in the AFC South over the Tennessee Titans–who I continue to believe are not that good–and has one of the best offensive lines and, relatedly, running games in the NFL as well as the 6th-ranked defense in Football Outsiders’s DVOA metric. The Texans have a fortuitously scheduled bye this week to bring Leinart fully up to speed and should get Andre Johnson back in time for next Sunday’s game in Jacksonville.

Leinart has not been nearly as bad as most people think. He is 7-10 in his career as a starter, has a 57.1% completion rate, 14 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions. 16 of those 17 starts came in his first two seasons in the NFL, a time when very few quarterbacks flourish. Troy Aikman went 2-15 in his first 17 starts; Peyton Manning went 4-13. Will Matt Leinart have as great of a career as those two? Almost assuredly not, but we haven’t seen enough from him to unequivocally label him a bust yet.

Grantland’s Bill Barnwell argues that the bust label has been unfairly applied to Leinart in part because of Ken Whisenhunt, who has not proven himself to be a competent evaluator of the quarterback position:

Despite [Derek Anderson's mediocrity], Whisenhunt preferred Anderson, and cut the former first-round pick [Leinart]. Anderson was arguably the worst opening-day starter in football, and the team bounced between him and rookies Max Hall and John Navarre Skelton throughout the season. Each rated among the worst quarterbacks in football. The following year, Whisenhunt traded for Kevin Kolb. Kolb was, not coincidentally, one of the worst quarterbacks in football this season before suffering an injury. Whisenhunt is the primary reason Matt Leinart is considered a bust, and over the course of his career as Cardinals coach, Whisenhunt has shown virtually no ability to pick the right starting quarterback for his team.

Another reason why Leinart has had the “bust” label unfairly applied to him is the Deadspin posts from 2008 where he was pictured holding a beer bong with attractive girls. In the offseason. From these pictures, he got the reputation for “not being fully passionate about football” (of course said in a holier-than-thou sportswriter tone). He was 24 or 25 years old in these pictures and almost any red-blooded male not named Tim Tebow would have taken advantage of Leinart’s situation, which, to put it bluntly, enabled him access to these parties and all that happens afterwards that is only a fantasy for 99.9% of the population. It’s a lot easier to preach unencumbered focus when one does not face the same opportunity costs.
Somewhat off topic, these moral and professional standards are only applied to quarterbacks–Victor Cruz and other members of the New York Giants were in a club at 2:30 AM late Monday night (saying, early ____ morning in these situations always sounds odd to me) when gunshots rang out (the Giants were not involved with that in any way). It is unlikely that Cruz will be vilified as being unfocused and unprofessional three years from now solely because of this incident AND HE SHOULDN’T BE BECAUSE THESE PLAYERS ARE YOUNG MEN, NOT ROBOTS.
With their 1.5-game lead, Leinart and the Texans should be able to hold off the Titans to win the AFC South. They have a shot at a first round bye but will almost definitely host a playoff game. It remains to be seen whether Houston’s roster is good enough and whether Matt Leinart can be a neutral-to-positive force as opposed to a liability and this will go a long way in determining whether the Texans to advance in the playoffs. However, we also don’t know whether that was the case for Schaub and I think that there is a reasonably good chance we will find out that Leinart is not nearly as bad as most people seem to think.

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