At least that was the idea. Next thing you knew, Leinart was guest-editing an issue of 'ESPN the Magazine,' hobnobbing on South Beach, filming TV commercials as Archie Manning's adopted son, and hosting a red-carpet fundraiser attended by homey Nick Lachey, Maria Sharapova, and a few hundred of his closest friends. Add the nonstop battling with Cameron, and Leinart found himself struggling to get into a regular training routine.
"It's been hard for me to say, Okay, these four days I'm working out in the morning." Leinart shrugs as he devours a giant salad brought to him by a buddy. "But now I gotta go to work and support my family." He gives a stern nod, as if trying to convince himself. "This is a big year for me. I'm just getting used to it, learning to take a more business approach to it. I realize this is my job, and I'm gonna work hard at it."
When I get up to leave, Leinart thrusts out his hand. "So tomorrow, I'm going to see you, right?" he asks. "That should be fun."
What's tomorrow? Leinart will escape from his baby-mama drama to film a cameo in an Adam Sandler movie at the Playboy mansion. Training camp opens in six days.
None of this would matter if Leinart were only marginally talented, like, say, his buddies Lachey and Valderrama. No one would care if he subsided into a goo of celebrity skanks and shirtless appearances in 'People' magazine. But Leinart has skills that shouldn't be squandered – not to mention the all-American good looks and charisma that could make him the new face of the NFL. In a league that has precisely three bankable, marquee stars (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and soon-to-be-retired Brett Favre) and could field an expansion team from prison, Leinart offers the possibility of redemption.
He combines Madison Avenue appeal, Hollywood glitz, and, oh yes, once-a-generation talent. All he has to do now is live up to the talent part. He left USC with a 37–2 record, ranked fourth in career passing. Sure he had help from future NFLers Reggie Bush, Duane Jarrett, and Lendale White, but there was something more substantial at play. At six-foot-five, 232 pounds, Leinart is a classic drop-back QB à la Troy Aikman, only taller. He doesn't dance around in the pocket – and that's good. For all the chatter about the genius mobility of the Vicks, McNabbs, and Favres, they have exactly one Super Bowl ring among them, while Aikman and Tom Brady, pure pocket passers like Leinart, have six.
Though his personal life may be chaotic, Leinart's play has a certain stability. He plays best in games with the highest stakes. In the 2005 national championship game, Leinart threw three touchdown passes on three consecutive possessions. Some carped that Leinart had never known adversity, but then, in 2005, he had his defining moment, against Notre Dame in South Bend. Trailing by three late in the fourth quarter, USC faced fourth-and-nine deep in its own end. Walking back on the field, Leinart told Jarrett, "Be ready." When Leinart stepped up for the snap, he noticed the cornerback on Jarrett cheating to the inside. He made eye contact with Jarrett, called an audible, and then hit him with a touch pass that Joe Montana would have killed his mother to have thrown. A few plays later, Leinart snuck in for the winning score.
Already he's proven a quick study in the complex calculus of the modern NFL. After missing most of training camp, Leinart stepped into his first preseason game against the Patriots on four days of practice.
"Just enjoy yourself," Tom Brady counseled before the game. That Leinart did, directing a hurry-up scoring drive on his first possession, against the Patriots' first-string defense.
"He has a 'Follow me, guys' presence that made his teammates want to play harder," says Dennis Green, Leinart's coach with the Cardinals last year. All of it adds up to potentially Canton-quality skills – if Leinart doesn't manage to blow it on wine, women, and VIP bottle service.
"How's Matty and Brynn doing?" our USC-bred waitress asks Bob Leinart, after taking his lunch order. She apparently hasn't been reading the papers.
"Um, they're not together; they hate each other," says Bob, with a whattaya-gonna-do shrug. "It's ugly. It's not good. She doesn't like him being a celebrity." The waitress drifts away with a sorry-I-asked smile. Papa Leinart just had his knee replaced, but the rest of the avuncular Heisman dad is in working order, specifically his mandible. He will tell you straight out that his second son was a tad overweight as a kid. "He wasn't chunky," says Leinart with a laugh. "He was fat. And cross-eyed."