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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Texans quarterback Matt Leinart will star in his own sequel

The former USC star has another chance to prove he has what it takes to be an NFL starter after Matt Schaub goes out with a broken foot. He says he never lost hope he'd get this chance.

November 24, 2011|Sam Farmer
  • Former USC standout Matt Leinart will take over at quarterback for the Houston Texans with injured starter Matt Schaub out for the season.
Former USC standout Matt Leinart will take over at quarterback for the Houston… (Paul Sakuma / Associated…)

Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart.

One needs a boot, the other needs a reboot.

With Schaub done for the season for the Houston Texans because of a broken foot, Leinart has another chance to prove that he has what it takes to make it as an NFL starter, and that his success at USC wasn't just because of the all-star cast surrounding him.

"The last three or four years, I've just really kind of put my head down and just worked extremely hard every day," said Leinart, cast aside by Arizona after training camp in 2010, four seasons removed from the Cardinals' making him the 10th overall pick in 2006.

"It's been a long time, but I've never given up, never lost hope. I've just worked hard, kind of accepted how everything has played out, and just kept telling myself to always be ready because you never know."

These next six weeks should be very interesting, and Leinart is in a dream situation for a quarterback looking to prove himself. At 7-3, the Texans have a two-game lead in the AFC South, the league's No. 1 defense, and the best running game in the conference. They play at Jacksonville on Sunday, where Houston hasn't won since 2006 — Leinart's rookie season in Arizona.

"I know how excited he is," Texans tackle Eric Winston said of Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner. "He's put himself in a position to be ready for this moment, and I'm excited about it. Everyone's going to go out there and try to do as much as they can to have him succeed.

"People who act like he doesn't have any game experience or has been some kind of abject failure in the NFL, which a lot of people are trying to make him out to be, it's wrong. I can't wait for these games to come up, because I really think a lot of people are going to be eating a lot of crow these next six weeks."

This is truly a second chance for Leinart, who lasted four seasons in Arizona and never got traction there. A lot of people around the league saw him as more Walk of Fame than Hall of Fame, more Hollywood than "Hard Knocks." It didn't help that Leinart tended to hang out with celebrities, and — when he was a new dad — pictures of him partying made their way around the Web.

All this coincided with the spectacular final chapter in Kurt Warner's career. Then, after Warner retired in early 2010, Leinart couldn't hold on to the starting job in training camp — he lost it to Derek Anderson — and the Cardinals eventually opted to keep John Skelton and Max Hall as backups.

"I don't regret anything that's happened to me in the past," Leinart said this week in a conference call. "I think everyone has made a few mistakes in their day, and everyone has learned from those. I've learned from everything I've done. I don't ever whine about what people have said, or complain.

"I disagree with some things, but like I said it doesn't bother me anymore. I've kind of developed a thick skin because I've taken a lot of criticism over the years."

Leinart signed a one-year deal with the Texans at the start of the 2010 season and dropped off the public radar screen. He made an impression on his new coaches and teammates, though. Houston thought enough of him to re-sign him to a two-year, $5.5-million deal in July, when it looked as if he were headed for a reunion with Pete Carroll in Seattle.

"The thing that stood out about Matt was how hard he worked," Winston said. "He was the third quarterback and he took the scout team so seriously. He was out there ticked at himself because he missed a throw on the scout team.

"He and I became friends and we'd go out, and he'd be like, 'Man, I've got to go home. I'm meeting the quarterback coach early.' I'm like, 'You are? On a Saturday morning?' People don't see the work he puts in."

Now, the Texans are in position to do something they have never done — make the playoffs — and Leinart has a chance to reshape the way most of the football world perceives him.

"It was funny last week, coming in and all of the cameras and media are around your locker," he said. "It was like, 'Man I haven't seen this in some years now.' But it's part of the business and I think the one thing is I think I can handle it a lot better."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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