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Jets can't pass on Matt


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Jets can't pass on Matt

-article from Mike Lupica, Daily News

Star is born to play Broadway

Reggie Bush was the best college football player last season and one of the best of all time. Vince Young, the Texas quarterback, played maybe the best single game of college football that has ever been played, if you really look at the stakes and circumstances of Texas vs. USC in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. Matt Leinart, the losing quarterback in that game, the first loss for him as the USC quarterback after 34 straight wins, is the best choice for the Jets in tomorrow's NFL draft. If he is still available at No. 4, they are nuts not to take him.

The Jets ought to take him because he is the best quarterback in this year's draft, a better bet for the pros, I believe, than the amazing Vince Young, better than Jay Cutler, the Vanderbilt quarterback who could turn out to be just swell at the next level or could turn out to be the second coming of Dave Brown.

The Jets ought to take Leinart because he is a star already and a winner and made as much for this stage as he was for the stage in L.A., where that USC team of his has felt like the only game in town.

"We all talk about all the other things, the measurables, size and strength and arm strength," an old AFC personnel guy, one whose team won't get a crack at Leinart, said yesterday. "What you can never measure properly are the intangibles. The magic that a certain player can have. The 'it' quality. And, in my opinion, this kid has 'it.'"

The Jets, now the Jets of Mike Tannenbaum and Eric Mangini, aren't going to win a Super Bowl this year no matter who plays quarterback for them. But they also aren't going to win one anytime soon without a young quarterback to build around. The Steelers got there fast with Ben Roethlisberger. The Giants will be a favorite to come out of the NFC this season because Eli Manning has fast-tracked this way, even if the way he finished last season got everybody crazy. Chad Pennington may never come back (and the idea out there that Leinart is just a lefthanded Pennington, that kind of arm, is stupid). And if Patrick Ramsey were more than a backup, he'd still be playing for Joe Gibbs in Washington.

In a draft-obsessed culture, you've heard all the doubts and whispers about Leinart. It was the same way with Peyton Manning when he was in college, even if the Colts were eventually smart enough to take him with the first pick. Manning was built up big for a while, and then people spent his senior year tearing him down. So all these TV guys tell anybody who will listen that Leinart is nothing more than a "lobber" when it comes to throwing the ball down the field. Suddenly Leinart is penalized because he had Bush with him, and LenDale White, and a bunch of big, strong guys who could catch the ball. All of this suddenly is supposed to be more relevant than the Heisman Trophy that Leinart won as a junior, and all those games he won over the past three seasons.

I watched this guy a lot, mostly because I knew I might never see another college football team as good as his. And watching him a lot, I know there were plenty of Saturday afternoons and Saturday nights when the USC Trojans, even with all that talent, could have lost. And didn't. Because Leinart would make a play, the way he made that spectacular fourth-and-9 play against Notre Dame when No. 1 was on the line, and another shot at the title, and USC's winning streak.

Bush made his share of plays, too, don't worry about it. It doesn't happen this way for Pete Carroll's team without this particular quarterback.

Leinart didn't have the best game of his life against Texas. But he didn't lose that game, either. USC's defense did that. If there is one thing in this world they can't let happen on the last play, it is letting Young get to the outside one more time. They had to make him throw, and didn't, and lost their chance at three national championships in a row.

Maybe the Jets are afraid to make a big play on a quarterback. Maybe they can sell the idea of taking D'Brickashaw Ferguson, offensive lineman, to their fans, sell them on getting people to protect the quarterback before they draft a young quarterback. That seems to be at least some of the conventional wisdom. Or maybe Mangini, who comes from the Patriots, thinks that he can get another Brady from the sixth round. Or that the system is just as important as the guy throwing the ball. Right. Let Bill Belichick go win three Super Bowls in four years with his system if Brady isn't the guy running it.

You know how you get a quarterback out of the sixth round who wins you three Super Bowls? You get hit by lightning, that's how.

Maybe the Titans will take Leinart instead of Young with the third pick in the draft, and the whole conversation goes out the window. But if Matt Leinart is available when it is the Jets' turn at Radio City Music Hall, they ought to grab him, give their fans a chance to cheer for the first time in a long time.

We can talk all we want about another Brady. Just know this: The way Brady plays in the pros? That's the way Leinart played quarterback in college.

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