The Great Debate (Bellamy)

Had the USC Trojans been able to hold on for their third-straight national championship a few weeks back, Matt Leinart may have gone down as the most successful quarterback in NCAA football history.

Even so, with two titles and a Heisman Trophy, Leinart is still one of the most decorated athletes in collegiate history and has every asset he could possibly need to succeed at the next level. So why is his stock on the decline all of a sudden?

Of course, the answer is obvious. It wasn’t the Texas Longhorns that beat USC on Jan. 4-it was Vince Young. And it’s Young’s entry into the NFL Draft that now has everyone buzzing while the best collegiate quarterback in the country falls into the background.

While last season, everyone knows he would have been the top pick had he foregone his senior year-yes, he even would have been picked ahead of our own Alex Smith-he now seems to be an afterthought, and instead of No. 1, he might slip to third, fourth or sixth, to the Titans, Jets or Raiders.

Of course, the Saints could still nab him at No. 2, and they should. But if the Vinsanity keeps up, first-year New Orleans head coach Sean Payton and his front office might be pressured enough to go with the more popular pick, rather than the clearly more logical one.

There’s no such thing as a “can’t miss” prospect for the NFL-not even Reggie Bush, although he comes terribly close. Still, Matt Leinart is right there with him. All the tools and intangibles are there-this is the very definition of a low-risk, high-reward pick.

The guy is 6 feet, 5 inches and 225 pounds (more than the requisite size for an NFL quarterback) and still has the mobility to move around in the pocket and scramble when he has to. He completed nearly 65 percent of his passes over the last three years and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is more than 4:1.

Of course, there are those who will argue that he put up such gaudy numbers against the notoriously weak defenses of the Pac-10. That may be true to an extent, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to dominate the way he did for three-straight seasons.

I seem to remember, a few years ago, another USC quarterback with a similar build, similar attributes and about half the rsum going No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft. That was Carson Palmer, and in just three years, he’s already established himself as one of the premier signal-callers in the entire league.

There’s no reason to think Leinart can’t, or won’t, do the same. He’s the epitome of the term “franchise quarterback.” He fits the ball in every sense. Even ignoring his accolades and possibly inflated numbers, Leinart has proven he’s the exact type of person you want running the show when the game’s on the line-unlike someone like, say, Peyton Manning, who consistently puts his hands around his own neck when it counts.

When he played his worst game of the season this year against Notre Dame, he still managed to convert a game-saving fourth-down, drive the team down the field with just seconds on the clock and later, as we all know, had the guts to call his own number and sneak over the end zone (even if Bush did push him in). And it wasn’t the first time he’s done it, either.

He has the same intangibles that have made modern players like Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb so great.

Young, on the other hand, is much more of a risk. It’s true that he came up biggest when it counted most, and that counts for a lot. But before that performance, reports indicated he wasn’t even planning on declaring for the draft this year. His performance was an amazing one, no doubt, but it seems to have blinded people to the fact that he’s still much more of a risk than Leinart.

Young was a great college player, but was also frustratingly erratic at times and struggled at times with his accuracy. That can’t be discounted.

What would be truly vexing about the possibility that the Saints could pick Young over Leinart is the fact that the upside factor doesn’t even come into play. Even if Young is everything the Saints hope for, will he really be any better than Leinart?

Young’s rapidly rising draft stock seems motivated only by the fact that he’s now a fan favorite-not by his college pedigree or his pro potential. His fame grew exponentially during that championship game, he’s an exciting player and he would be a dynamic selection for any NFL team-both on the field and in the press.

The potential is there, and to be honest, I think he will be a success in the NFL. But there’s little logical reason to pick him ahead of the USC gunslinger. Young is a special player, but Leinart is the blueprint for the NFL quarterback.

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