HOUSTON – Matt Leinart knows his time is coming.
The 2004 Heisman Trophy winner is back in a reserve role with the Houston Texans behind incumbent quarterback Matt Schaub. During the free-agent frenzy, Leinart had a chance to rejoin his college coach, Pete Carroll, in Seattle and possibly earn a starting role.
Instead, he chose to return to the Texans, learn more from Schaub and coach Gary Kubiak, and bide his time.
"I did what was best for me, and this is the best fit for me, by far," Leinart said Thursday. "I still want to be a starter, that's my goal. I'm still young. I've still got a lot of ball left."
Leinart and Carroll guided Southern Cal to back-to-back national championship games after the 2004 and '05 seasons. Leinart went 37-2 as a starter in college and left as the Trojans' all-time leader in touchdown passes (99) and completion rate (65 percent).
He was drafted 10th overall by the Cardinals in 2006 and appeared in 12 games as a rookie under coach Dennis Green, throwing 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He broke his collarbone in the fifth game of the next season, Kurt Warner took over and Leinart was mostly a spectator over the next 2 ½ seasons.
Warner retired after the 2009 season, giving Leinart a chance to run the offense. But Leinart clashed with Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, Derek Anderson won the job in training camp, and Leinart was released in September 2010.
"I've taken a different path, obviously," he said. "I have some starting experience. I've played well, at times, and there are times when I've struggled. It's all part of the maturation process."
The Texans signed him to a one-year contract, but Leinart didn't take a snap in the 2010 season. By now, if Leinart has learned anything through his topsy-turvy NFL career, it's patience.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride, but my career goal is always to be a starter," he said. "I want to start in this league, I want to get to a Super Bowl. No matter what people say or think or believe, I'm working at that every day and waiting until my time comes."
Leinart relaxed in Southern California over the summer, working on his game and spending time with his 4-year-old son, Cole. When the lockout ended, Leinart spoke with Carroll about reuniting in Seattle.
The Texans wanted him, too, and as Leinart weighed his options, he leaned more and more toward returning to Houston. Though he didn't get on the field in 2010, he had clicked with Kubiak, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. He also felt comfortable in the offense, which ranked third overall last season (387 yards per game) and fourth in passing (259 yards per game).
"Despite my relationship with Pete, I had to put that aside and really do what was best for me, in the big picture," Leinart said. "This is the best thing for my career, to be here, to learn and improve and get better under this great coaching we have here.
"It just made more sense for me to be here. It turned out to be an easy choice."
On Thursday, Leinart zipped a perfect pass to fullback James Casey down the sideline. He rolled left and overthrew tight end Owen Daniels on another play, but was on a target with an off-balance throw to receiver Dorin Dickerson later in practice.
"He's a smart guy and he's really learning," Schaub said of Leinart. "It's fun to work with him. It's just the little things in our offense that he's got to pick up on and the nuances. But he's doing well."
Kubiak says Leinart will play "a great deal" in Monday's preseason opener against the New York Jets.
"He's confident and he knows our offense," Kubiak said. "He believes this offense suits him, so you see that confidence and it's exuded every day in practice. I think we're all excited as a team. We've got so much confidence in our starter. But I think, right now, the team says, 'Hey, if something happened, we know we can keep moving forward because of the way he's practicing and the way he leads this group.'"
Leinart is still only 28, and he's encouraged by the success of Warner, Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young — veterans who had to wait their turns before emerging as stars. He's focused on daily improvement, and maintains his belief that his best NFL days are still in front of him.
"Guys have taken so many different routes in their careers," he said. "Every way is different, and you never know what's going to happen. For me, I just know that my opportunity is going to come."