Leinart is Cardinals' ray of hope

His team having escaped the desert still unbeaten but not necessarily unblemished, coach Lovie Smith was asked following the Chicago Bears' improbable victory on Monday night about the performance of Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Matt Leinart in just his second NFL start.

Replied Smith: "He's a scholarship player."

Indeed, it seems, he is.

We don't know about scholarship in terms of, well, scholarship -- because, let's face it, not even the quarterback position in the NFL requires Mensa membership. From what we recall of Leinart's preparation for the 2006 draft, the former Southern California star and Heisman Trophy winner scored well enough on the infamous Wonderlic test to not send up any red flags among scouts who might have been fretting about his comprehension abilities.

And in his gutsy start Monday night, hanging tough against a voracious Bears defense that pregame pundits predicted would squash him, Leinart clearly demonstrated that he gets it. Gets it on the field, where he completed 24 of 42 passes for 232 yards, with two touchdown passes and no interceptions, and rallied the Cardinals for a makeable game-winning field goal try after they had squandered a 23-3 advantage. And gets if off the field, too, where he said all the right things following a particularly bitter defeat.

About the rightest thing Leinart noted after the Cardinals' latest collapse was an insight that he's gained in only a couple weeks on the job, a pithy yet powerful bit of knowledge that has escaped most of his senior teammates and perhaps even some Arizona coaches.

"We have to learn how to finish," noted Leinart, quickly capturing the essence of the Cardinals' most glaring deficiency during most of the seasons the franchise has wallowed in sub-mediocrity.

If Neil Rackers, the record-setting kicker of a year ago who has suddenly regressed to formerly erratic ways, had nailed the potential game-winning field goal in the final minute, the glee that would have ensued in Glendale, Ariz., would have overshadowed only temporarily the reality that the Cardinals can't handle prosperity. At some point, a few days after the team and its fans climbed down from cloud nine, someone likely would have pointed out that the game should never have been reduced to counting on Rackers' foot. And that someone, given his postgame remarks, probably would have been Leinart.

The Cardinals signed tailback Edgerrin James, in part, to be their closer. James is the guy who is supposed to bleed the clock in the fourth quarter, move the chains and suck the optimism out of an opponent hell-bent on a late-game comeback (as he reminded anyone who would listen last week after the Cardinals squandered away a game against Kansas City). The problem is, Chicago's defense knew, after James' criticism, that the Cardinals would make sure they went to their closer with a lead on Monday night.

And the Bears closed down the closer as the Cardinals' offense grew about as ultraconservative as Barry Goldwater, an old Arizona political icon, after shocking the world with a 23-3 lead.

It's hard to blame Cardinals coach Denny Green for the mundane play-calling. After all, you get up by 20 points on a team as powerful as the Bears, you try to shorten the game. But in so doing, the Cardinals also shortened the leash on their young quarterback, who performed to that point with remarkable poise.

On the six offensive possessions between the time Arizona grabbed its 20-point lead and the point at which the Bears jumped ahead on Devin Hester's scintillating punt return for a touchdown, the Cardinals' offense managed 34 yards and three first downs on 21 snaps. That's an average of just 3.5 snaps per series. On just two of those half-dozen possessions did the Cardinals take more than two minutes off the game clock. Two of the possessions consumed less than one minute. Four of the six possessions concluded in punts and the other two ended on lost fumbles.

But here's the most notable statistic from that stretch: The Cardinals threw just one first-down pass on those six possessions. And just two second-down passes. Basically they put the passing game, and, thus, Leinart, on ice until third down. Until it was too late.

"They pulled it in," said Bears weakside linebacker Lance Briggs. "They'd had us on our heels earlier in the game, throwing on early downs, not worrying about the fact [Leinart] is a rookie. When they got that big lead, they kind of took the ball out of his hands a little bit, you know?"

Based on his first two starts, it would seem, the Cardinals might want to start relying more on Leinart's hands (or, more accurately, his arm) and less on James' feet. Especially since the inept Arizona offensive line continues to have difficulty creating creases for its highly paid tailback.

In his two starting assignments, Leinart, who might force a lot of teams to regret having passed on him in the draft, has completed 46 of 77 attempts for 485 yards, with four touchdown passes and no interceptions. His quarterback rating is an estimable 95.4 in those games and, most important, he had the Cardinals in position to win both times.

Unfortunately for Leinart, he has now lost as many games as an NFL starter as he did in 39 starts during his celebrated college career. There figure to be a lot more defeats along the way, too, and maybe not enough victories this season to extend Green's tenure with the team. But at some point, if Leinart's first two starts offered any auguring of what might eventually come, Leinart might actually turn the NFL's football wasteland in the desert into the Valley of the Sun that it's billed as being.

"He showed a lot of [fortitude]," Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "He's got that kind of it that people talk about."

In the private suite of Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill on Monday was a group from Leinart's high-profile SoCal posse, including actor Ashton Kutcher. Anyone who has ever met Bidwill would agree that the scene must have been about as incongruous as one could imagine. But in its own way, it might have been oddly appropriate as well.

Because if his first two starts were an inkling of what is to come, it's just a matter of time before Leinart and the Cardinals aren't getting punk'd as much anymore.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.