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Waiting for Lefty...By Nelson Lardner

Of the innumerable, unspeakable mistakes in judgment the Oakland Raiders have made since their most-recent Super Bowl pratfall, not selecting USC QB Matt Leinart ranks right up there . . . baby.

While shuffling along with Andrew Walter at quarterback - and with their top '06 draft choice, Texas safety Michael Huff, performing in wholly-undistinguished fashion in his rookie year, Leinart has yet to set the world on fire in terms of sheer win-power, as he's yet to be handed the keys to a $95,000 Mercedes-Benz. You need at least a reasonably-talented, consistent offensive line to make hay, in this league. Ask Jim Plunkett about his ordeal by fire behind the Patriot "offensive" (fur suure) line of the early '70s, well-before he hit his Super Bowl-winning stride with the Raiders, more than a decade later.

Drafted in April by the Arizona Cardinals, Leinart was the last first-rounder to agree to the terms with the notably-parsiminous Cards. But once in the fold, he picked things up in a hurry, and only had to wait though three and three-quarter regular-season games to witness Kurt Warner play himself out of the starting job.

It hasn't been all Cristal and caviar for Leinart since his ascension. He played well both visually and statistically in his starting debut against the Chiefs in Week Five, but the Cardinal defense couldn't close the deal, losing it by a field goal. You saw more last Monday night, as Leinart and the Arizona receivers made the vaunted Bear defense look more like the current 49er stop unit for a half, before the Bears adjusted, and turnovers and special-teams spoiled the stew.

Now the kid who's so, so used to winning has to go on the road, where Arizona has lost in 31 of its most recent 34 regular-season tries away from home . That's the bad news. The good news, you already know . . . he gets to take his shots at the team in dire need that didn't deign to draft him.

Leinart's mechanics, maturity and poise impress me.. It's rare for a first-year player to step right into the high-speed NFL world and show such a quiet confidence, with consistency, right off the reel. Since the Merger, Dan Marino did it. John Elway, too. You have to envision what he could be, behind a genuine offensive line. To be fair, Philip Rivers of the Chargers can be mentioned in the same breath as Leinart in terms of potential greatness, though Rivers is operating a far-superior piece of football machinery, and also had the advantage of being able to stand back and watch how Drew Brees handled himself running that San Diego offense.

The fact that Leinart throws with his left arm makes for added interest. Southpaw top-drawer NFL quarterbacks are on an historical short list. Steve Young was the first to make the Hall of Fame - and he struggled in the win-loss department until he got his chance to assume control of the 49er Rolls-Royce. Boomer Esiason nearly won his Super Bowl, and later had the good fortune to be a good-looking blonde signalcaller in the New York market, which does wonders for anyone interested in broadcasting, rather than enduring hard labor.

Speaking of New York Blondes and their spawn, Chris Simms (as well as Mark Brunell) are two other QBs who led their respective teams into the season, throwing from portside. With Leinart, that's more prominent lefties than you typically see doing business on a regular basis, at this level.

Have no dog in today's Cardinal/Raider hunt. Both sides have historically-strong technical handicapping angles working in their favor. Expect the game to wind up close to the number (Cards -3), and would be eager to play a halftime number which provides a clear theoretical advantage to the team that's NOT leading at the midway point. But I'm most-curious to see Leinart operate versus the outfit that decided at crunch time that they could do without him.

Nelson Lardner

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