A year after being jettisoned by the Arizona Cardinals and scooped up by the Texans, quarterback Matt Leinart is getting a long-awaited second chance to be a starter.
He certainly didn't wish for it to happen this way – through a "significant foot injury" to his friend Matt Schaub – but it's a chance nonetheless. And the 28-year-old Leinart, a first-round pick in 2006 who has started all of one game in the last four seasons, is ready to seize the moment for however long Schaub is out.
"It's a huge opportunity for me," Leinart said on Monday. "I'm really bummed for Matt (Schaub). We've become very close the last year and this year. He's the leader of this football team and he's done a great job in the 4-5 years he's been here to get us to this point... But he knows and everyone knows in this profession that things happen and the next guy has to step up.
"That's my job and my responsibility as a quarterback, to take his place for now and help this team win. That's what I've wanted for a long time and what I've worked for every day and prepared for every day of the offseason and during the season."
After winning two national championships and a Heisman Trophy at USC, Leinart was drafted 10th overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2006. He started 11 games as a rookie but broke his collarbone five games into his second season.
With a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt, Leinart never regained his starting job from future Hall of Fame Kurt Warner. He was cut by the Cardinals just before the start of last season.
As the Texans' third quarterback in 2010, Leinart ran the scout team in practice. He got a better feel for the offense this year in training camp and the preseason after re-signing to be Schaub's No. 2. He got extensive practice reps with the first team a few weeks ago when Schaub missed time with injuries. His brief fourth-quarter appearance Sunday at Tampa Bay was his first game action as a Texan.
"The backup quarterback only gets a certain amount of reps, but you have to make the most of those in practice, and in the game you have to be able to be accountable," Leinart said. "That's something that I've learned in this league and in this profession. Your time is going to come and you have to be accountable for when that opportunity comes. I think my guys know that I work hard, study hard and I prepare very well. We're going to take this and go game-by-game. I don't think much is going to change."
The Texans have gotten to 7-3 this season with a dominant defense and running game, both of which are still intact. Schaub averaged only 22.6 pass attempts during the Texans' current four-game winning streak. Leinart, who hasn't thrown a pass in the regular season since Jan. 3, 2010, won't all of a sudden be asked to throw it 30-35 times a game.
Leinart said he has "always been comfortable" with the bootlegs and play-action that the Texans so often run. It was an integral part of his offense at USC, where he went 37-2 and threw for a school-record 10,693 career yards.
"It's part of the reason why I love this offense so much," Leinart said. "Arizona, we weren't a big play-action and boot pass team at all and here, obviously that's there. With the way we run the ball so well, that's a huge part of our offense and that's something that I really feel comfortable doing and I think the coaches know that just because of my past experience… I know we'll continue to do that stuff because that's what makes us so good. That's our offense."
Leinart's confidence is further buoyed by the weapons at his disposal. He marveled on Monday at the Texans' offensive line, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers.
"That makes it harder on the defense when you've got so many weapons," Leinart said. "If you double Andre (Johnson), you leave Owen Daniels or Kevin (Walter) or Jacoby (Jones) one-on-one. There's not a lot you can do.
"I imagine now defenses are going to try to make me throw the ball to win, and we've got some great guys on the outside to do that and we also got that running game. It's going to be fun."
The Texans have withstood injuries to key player after key player this season. Arian Foster (hamstring) missed two of the first three games. Andre Johnson (hamstring) has missed the last six games. Mario Williams (chest) is out for the season, and Danieal Manning (fibula) is out indefinitely.
Schaub joined that list on Sunday, which means Leinart joins a list that includes Brooks Reed and Troy Nolan of Texans players to step in for injured stars this season.
He's taking the reins to a team that's tied for the best record in the AFC right now, but Leinart isn't feeling a ton of pressure.
"I think it's easy to let the situation itself overpower you, but for me, that's why we play this game and that's why we get paid what we get paid," Leinart said. "That's why we grind it out every day during the season and training camp is for things like this. I've played in a lot of big games from college to pro. I've been a part of a lot of big games, and for me, it's just about stepping in and doing my job. My job is I'm a quarterback. My job is to lead this football team, to move the chains, score points and to be efficient.
"It's exciting. This organization, we haven't been in this situation before, but we got a great team. We've got a great team camaraderie. Everyone is so together in belief of what we can accomplish. We just continue to march forward together."