Going into the 2006 NFL Draft, there were a lot of different opinions on where these two men might go off the board. Both were possible top 5 selections, but both could've conceivably fallen beyond the 15th overall selection. Many experts were split on the issue of who was better, who would be drafted first, and who would have the most promising NFL career.
While most retired players will tell you that the specific team they get drafted by makes all the difference, there are still bragging rights to be had in relation to draft position. And Matt Leinart was drafted 10th overall by the Cardinals, one selection before Jay Cutler went off the board to the Broncos.
Scouts and draftniks argued back and forth. Some thought Cutler held the edge because he was going to a better team that surely was going to win the AFC West, some picked Leinart to start earlier on a beleaguered Cardinals team. Everyone loved Leinart's reputation, his charisma, his success at the collegiate level, his intelligence. Everyone saw the potential of Cutler with his big arm wasting away on an inferior team in a power conference.
And, really, almost eight months later... not a lot has changed.
Both young men got pressed into service earlier than expected. Both are rookies. Both want to win this Sunday. But that's pretty much where the similarities end.
Cutler is more athletic and has a stronger arm than Leinart. He has more of a "gunslinger" mentality and has thusly drawn comparisons to Brett Favre and John Elway. Leinart is more composed, more patient, more careful with the football, and relies more on precision than velocity in his throws. He has been compared to Chad Pennington and Steve Young (in part just because they're both left-handed).
Who will get the best of this battle on Sunday? Well, really, unless Leinart or Cutler make an inordinate number of mistakes, the entire teams on both sides will determine the outcome. The quarterback often gets too much credit for wins and too much blame for losses. And, that will be the case on Monday morning when all is said and done.
How will this effect their respective careers? It's too early to tell. Both men were drafted high and given large, long term contracts. Neither is playing for their season. Neither is playing for their career.
Honestly, this quarterback duo is a battle of Mike Shanahan's ego vs. Dennis Green's job security.
Green made the switch to Leinart when it became apparent that the season was quickly falling apart. He could either take a chance on his rookie quarterback or face the weekly criticism that would surely befall him if he didn't make the switch. On top of all that, Leinart is under contract with the Arizona Cardinals for a considerably longer period of time than is Green. The Cardinals are more tied to Leinart than they are Green. If Leinart shows progress and promise, next season shows promise, and, by proxy, Green shows promise.
For Shanahan, it is all about escaping the shadow of the man many experts compare Cutler to - John Elway. Shanahan isn't concerned about getting fired. He knows that he could show up to every news conference from here on out in boxer shorts and an "I'm With Stupid" trucker hat and he wouldn't be handed a pink slip by Pat Bowlen. He's trying to change the perception that he won two Super Bowls because of Elway. By putting Cutler in as starter, he is declaring that "his guy" will be running the team for the foreseeable future. That Cutler will be the next Elway - but on Shanahan's terms.
Leinart is going to be the starter in Arizona for years to come - his gigantic contract kind of dictates that. And, since Shanahan makes the Amish look downright civil when he shuns a quarterback, there will be no return to Jake Plummer. This game is the first we'll see of Leinart vs. Cutler, but it won't be the last.
So, listen to the hype if you must. Just don't believe that this showdown is about the two guys taking the snaps as opposed to the two guys pacing the sidelines.