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Doug Farrar

The Canton Case for Kurt Warner

Doug Farrar
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With the news that Kurt Warner(notes) may be retiring on Friday, it's a good time to look at his legacy, and ask where he ranks on the list of all-time greats.

Johnny Unitas was cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers and had to bide his time with a semi-pro team called the Bloomfield Rams until the Baltimore Colts came calling. Len Dawson was once cut by alleged quarterback genius Paul Brown and may have been a complete washout were it not for the American Football League. Bart Starr was a 17th-round draft pick. There are already quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame whose beginnings were very humble, though one would have to go a ways to find beginnings as humble as Kurt Warner's.

After being cut by the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent in 1994, Warner stocked grocery store shelves and made his way through Arena and NFL Europe football before an injury to Trent Green(notes) in the 1999 preseason put him in the spotlight as the starting quarterback for what would become the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams. After all that work, it took Warner no time at all to turn it on; he became the only quarterback in NFL history to throw three touchdown passes in each of his first three starts, and his brilliant 1999 season was the catalyst for the Rams' only Super Bowl victory.

He was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player in that magical first full season, but there was more to come. As good as he was in 1999, he may have been even better in 2001, when he picked up his second MVP award and led the league in (deep breath) completions, completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, yards per completion, yards per game, and quarterback rating. A narrow loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI took the "potential dynasty" tag off Warner's Rams and handed it to Tom Brady's(notes) Pats, and the Rams started to fall apart. And then 2002 and 2003 saw him struggle with injury and ineffectiveness, and he was replaced by Marc Bulger(notes). The Rams released him before the 2004 season, which he spent with the New York Giants as Eli Manning's(notes) understudy. Few expected an epic comeback after he signed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2005, especially after he struggled to keep a starting job ahead of Josh McCown(notes) and Matt Leinart(notes) in 2005 and 2006.

For Warner, 2007 began his remarkable third act. He wrested the starting job from Leinart and put up his best overall numbers since 2001. In 2008, he led the Cardinals to an improbable Super Bowl berth, throwing for the second-highest yardage total and third-highest touchdown total in his career. There was very little statistical dropoff in 2009, though Warner started making noises about retirement at age 38, worried about the toll that injuries and concussions might take. It appears, from all indications, that he will take that step on Friday.

So, is Kurt Warner a Hall-of-Famer? Given his overall career, it's difficult to argue that he isn't -- the only question is whether he'd go in on the first ballot. In his last victory, that amazing 51-45 playoff win over the Packers, he threw more touchdowns than incompletion. He owns the three highest passing yardage games in Super Bowl history. He was the pointman in the Super Bowl redemptions of two formerly moribund teams. Only he and Fran Tarkenton have thrown more than 100 touchdown passes with two different teams. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2 of the 2009 season, he completed 24 passes in 26 attempts for the all-time single-game completion percentage record. If he does indeed retire now, one almost has to consider what Warner could have done with a few more seasons. The Hall of Fame has given extra points for going out on top -- just ask Jim Brown. You can view Warner's career stats here.

What do you think? Should Warner start making plans for Canton five years from now?

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