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Warner goes from dog days to franchise savior

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Michael Silver will not host a Live Trippin' session this week. Live Trippin' will resume from Tampa, Fla., next week prior to Super Bowl XLIII.

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. – Five hours after the thrilling triumph that even he found astonishing, long after the confetti had fallen and his legacy had been cemented, Kurt Warner was still standing firm in the face of an all-out blitz.

Sharing a loveseat with his wife, Brenda, in the living room of their suburban Phoenix home late Sunday night, having endured a long day's worth of pressure from the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game, the Arizona Cardinals' Super Bowl-bound quarterback made a proclamation that even President-elect Barack Obama didn't dare utter in his household.

"No puppy," Warner said, provoking immediate resistance from Brenda and 17-year-old daughter Jesse, the second oldest of the couple's seven kids. "It's not gonna happen."

"Dad, you promised," Jesse said. "Remember?"

"I never promised that."

"We are so getting a puppy if you win the Super Bowl," Brenda said, smiling like someone who knows she'll get her way. "Just like you said we would."

"I never said I'm getting a puppy," Kurt insisted. "I don't want one."

The debate raged on, a man who had spent the afternoon calmly staring down the Eagles, their dramatic second-half comeback and his franchise's decades-long history of futility now rattled by the prospect of a hypoallergenic Shih Tzu joining the family.

Earlier, in a 32-25 victory over Philadelphia that sent shivers down the spines of 70,650 fans at University of Phoenix Stadium, Warner had resoundingly and irrevocably settled a much meatier argument: Has the two-time MVP, a former supermarket stock boy who gutted out stints in two now-dormant minor leagues before achieving sudden NFL stardom at 28, made a compelling case for the Hall of Fame?

After his brilliant performance on Sunday, the answer is as easy to read for the rest of us as the Eagles' defense was for the crafty veteran. To paraphrase a former Cardinals coach's signature line: Go ahead and bronze him.

"Hall of Famer?" Cardinals halfback Edgerrin James repeated while walking off the confetti-filled field. "I think you already know. That [expletive] is a baaaaad man."

Don't just take it from James, the NFL's 11th all-time leading rusher. Consider that last week, in an interview with Sports Illustrated's Dan Patrick, a three-time Super Bowl MVP named Joe Montana declared that Warner is a "shoo-in" for the Hall.

And that was before Warner sculpted his Montanesque masterpiece on Sunday, one which included otherworldly accuracy (21-for-28, 279 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions) and a stomach-in-your-throat, score-or-else, length-of-the-field drive that somehow made a violent game look like a perfectly choreographed ballet.

I'm not going to waste a lot of time detailing Warner's statistical credentials, other than to note that he is headed for a third Super Bowl, with the chance to win a second Super Bowl MVP, and is now 8-2 in playoff games (with furious comeback attempts that fell just short in the two defeats).

Oh, and here's a number I defy any passer of this or another era to match: Warner has, through the sheer force of his will and excellence, guided two long-struggling franchises to previously unrealized heights. Or, to put it another way, there are now a pair of metropolitan areas in which he will never again have to buy a beer, should the devout Christian ever decide to start drinking.

So yes, no matter what happens against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII on Feb. 1 in Tampa, they'll be toasting Warner in Canton one day. And they'll be talking about all the insanely daunting obstacles he had to overcome, from the post-college job stocking shelves at the Hy-Vee Supermarket in Cedar Falls, Iowa for $5.50 an hour – yes, he really was that blown off by the football world – to the Donovan McNabb-led rally that brought Philly from a 24-6 deficit midway through the third quarter to a 25-24 lead with 10:45 left in the game.

As McNabb's picturesque spiral floated through the hands of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and, after a couple of artful tips, was corralled by rookie wideout DeSean Jackson as he spun into the end zone for a 62-yard score, the weight of a downtrodden franchise threatened to crush the Cards. Raising Arizona was all on Warner.

Going into this season, the Chicago/St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals had won two playoff games in their inglorious history. Warner, having already come up big in upset victories over the Falcons and Panthers, was about to go three-for-three in '09.

The game had taken on an arc that was eerily similar to Super Bowl XXXIV, when the St. Louis Rams had raced out to a 16-0 halftime lead over the Tennessee Titans, who came back to tie the game in the fourth quarter before Warner uncorked the game-winning, 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce.

This time, he would take the Cardinals 72 yards, but instead of doing it all in one play, he went the methodical route: 14 plays over seven minutes, 52 seconds, a drive for the ages that took all of the pressure off of Arizona and turned the score and a raucous crowd against McNabb.

The exceptional offensive game plan crafted by second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley was wholly reliant on Warner's ability to recognize Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's intricate blitz patterns and exploit the mismatches they created. To say Warner was zoned in is like saying Martin Luther King had a good oratorical rhythm during his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Wideout Larry Fitzgerald (nine catches, 152 yards) was the major beneficiary, catching three first-half touchdowns, including one off a perfectly executed flea-flicker. Nine Cardinals in all caught passes – including Warner, who gained four yards off a deflected throw that caromed back into his hands – and James (16 carries, 73 yards) and Tim Hightower (11 carries, 33 yards) provided balance on the ground.

On the fateful drive, Warner completed all five of his passes for 56 yards. The last throw was the sweetest: On third-and-goal from the 8, Warner set up a play in which Fitzgerald went to the left corner of the end zone while fellow wideout Anquan Boldin flashed to the right for an inside screen. Defenders overplayed both Pro Bowlers, leaving Hightower, a hard-running rookie halfback, in space to receive a backside screen to Warner's left. Hightower caught it and charged forward behind four blockers, bowling over safety Quintin Demps inside the five and lunging into the end zone.

The roar that ensued was half-relief, half-jubilation and, from a once-skeptical fan base, all-in.

The quarterback wasn't done, however. He coolly connected with tight end Ben Patrick for the two-point conversion to push the margin to 7. As McNabb tried to get the game to overtime, Warner flashed back to Super Bowl XXXIV, which ended with Rams linebacker Mike Jones tackling Titans wideout Kevin Dyson a yard short of a tying touchdown.

Just stop 'em, Warner thought to himself. Even if it's on the one-inch line.

McNabb only got to the Cards' 47 before his fourth-and-10 pass bounced off receiver Kevin Curtis, and soon it was giddy celebration time for a team that went 9-7 in the regular season and got blown out by three opponents (including the Eagles) in their final five games.

A few minutes after the confetti fell, Kurt and Brenda, who had steeled her nerves with a pregame beer, kissed for the cameras like old times, and Fitzgerald – Brenda's co-conspirator in the doggie plot – ran by and screamed, "Puppy!"

Hours later Kurt and Brenda were cuddled up in the loveseat, where he admitted that he had been so focused on the Eagles in the week leading up to the game that, even in their seemingly intimate moments, his head was figuratively in his playbook.

"You mean during our ‘serious conversations' you were thinking about the game?" Brenda asked. The euphemism didn't fool Jesse, who'll be a freshman at NYU in the fall.

"Serious conversations? That's what you're calling it?" she asked, rolling her eyes.

Eager to change the subject, Brenda brought up the puppy once more.

"What happened was, before the playoffs when we were asking you about a puppy and said, ‘Can we get one if you win the Super Bowl?' you said OK," Brenda said to Kurt. "I think that's 'cause you didn't think we were going to the Super Bowl."

Replied Kurt: "I never said it. I just blew it off. It was more like, ‘We're not getting to the Super Bowl and we're not getting a puppy.' "

Brenda tried a different tack. "If it's a gift from Larry, we have to accept it."

"We can give it to someone else," Kurt said, refusing to budge. "Besides, who gives animals as a gift? Not cool."

"Oh come on," Brenda said. "I've put up with 11 years in the NFL. I deserve it."

Kurt's face lit up. "Oh, 11 years? Poor, poor, pitiful you," he said. "It's been such a rough life you've had." He pointed to the family's comfortable surroundings, then continued: "I could've stayed at the Hy-Vee. I probably could've been the night manager at this point. Then maybe you wouldn't have it so rough."

Brenda laughed, in spite of herself, before seven-year-old daughter Jada appeared and handed her father a miniature book she had composed on the family's computer. The multi-colored printout congratulated Kurt for his triumph: "Dad, you're the best! I cannot believe you are going to the SUPER BOWL … I am really happy for you AND your team. You are the BOMB!"

Kurt smiled, and for a second it looked like he might get choked up.

The future Hall of Famer turned the page.

"Dad," it read, "we're getting a puppy."

If Warner has a Super Sunday in Tampa, don't bet against it.

I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …

I don't know if Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed is the best safety in football, but it was the dude with the soft voice and the wild hair who made the biggest play of Sunday's AFC championship game – and who'll be charged with trying to slow down Warner and Fitzgerald in the Super Bowl. Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison may be Pittsburgh's biggest playmaker, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might be the franchise, but Polamalu, in my opinion, is the Steelers' most indispensable performer. He was a force throughout Sunday's 23-14 victory over the Ravens, at one point perfectly timing a leap over the line to help stop 6-foot-6 quarterback Joe Flacco on a fourth-and-1 sneak late in the first quarter. And when Flacco, with Baltimore having closed to within two points, tried to rally his team to a go-ahead score in the final five minutes, it was Polamalu who seized the football and the moment. Reading the rookie passer's eyes adroitly on a third-and-13 play from the Ravens' 29, Polamalu stepped in front of a pass to Derrick Mason, jumped to snatch it out of the air and made a purposeful, cutback-filled dash to the end zone. It's the type of play Polamalu's fellow USC alum, Ronnie Lott, would have made in an earlier era – the type of power move that leads to ring ceremonies and retired jerseys. It will be fascinating to watch the battle of wits between Polamalu and Warner in Tampa in two weeks. The two players have a lot in common – they're well-liked leaders who respect the game and are thoughtful and intelligent interview subjects. When I saw Polamalu after the Steelers' 13-9 victory over the Ravens in Baltimore last month, the sixth-year safety told me about Pittsburgh's evolution under second-year coach Mike Tomlin, noting that everything from the practice schedule to the players' off-the-field commitment has changed since '07. If we'd had more time, it would have been great to break it down even further. Come to think of it, this is a subject I look forward to tackling in Tampa.

All you McNabb haters who want to use Philly's defeat as evidence that he's not a big-game quarterback, please take that garbage somewhere else. Overcoming a rough first half, the man was inspirational on Sunday, completing 28 of 47 passes for 375 yards and three second-half touchdowns (plus an interception which, thanks to Jackson's strip of safety Aaron Francisco, turned out to be meaningless). Yes, he's now 1-4 in NFC championship games – and still 0-1 in Super Bowls – but Sunday's game convinced me that his Lombardi moment will come. You've undoubtedly seen highlights of his three TD passes, including the 62-yard beauty to Jackson that put the Eagles up 25-24 with 10:45 remaining. Yet his most important throw came with Philly trailing 24-6 with 6:47 left in the third quarter and facing a third-and-8 from its own 31. McNabb, from the shotgun formation, uncorked a gorgeous pass over the deep middle that Kevin Curtis hauled in for a 50-yard gain. The Eagles scored four plays later, the first of three consecutive touchdowns that put them in command of a game that seemed to have been slipping away. "Donovan McNabb is a great quarterback," Warner said. "I don't think he needed a game like this to show what he's all about. He's done some phenomenal things in this game – I mean, five NFC championship games; are you kidding me? I love the guy. He's a man of character and he's a phenomenal player, as good a quarterback as there is. It's scary watching him."

A few weeks ago I got a call from Keyshawn Johnson regarding Cardinals offensive coordinator Haley, who was an assistant under Bill Parcells in both Dallas and with the Jets when Johnson played there. "This guy will be a terrific head coach," Johnson said of Haley. "He's a tough disciplinarian who is a very skilled play-caller. I hope he gets his chance." Haley, 41, didn't generate any serious interest from any of the teams searching for new coaches, but I have a feeling he pushed himself to the forefront of next year's inevitable coaching derby with an innovative and aggressive game plan against the Eagles. Along with Whisenhunt, Haley came up with a set of formations, personnel groupings and pre-snap shifts that freed up Fitzgerald and kept Philly's defenders off balance while highlighting Warner's ability to recognize blitzes. At one point in the first quarter, the Cardinals had safety Antrel Rolle in the offensive backfield as a diversion, which helped spring James on a 16-yard run to the opposite side. There was the timely flea-flicker and a series of smart calls on the game-winning drive, all of which served as a testament to Haley's abilities. "He needs a job," Johnson said Sunday night via text message. "What the [expletive] are these GMs thinking?" Haley, whose father, Dick, is a Dolphins personnel assistant who previously worked for the Steelers and Jets, insists he's thinking only about the special opportunity that awaits him in Tampa. "I grew up in Pittsburgh as a ball boy for the Steelers in the '70s, and I remember when that team, which had been terrible for 50 years – and my dad played on some of those teams – finally won the Super Bowl," he said. "Now you can't talk about that town without talking about the Steelers, and we have a chance to make that happen here. It's such an exciting time."

… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT

Late in the game, as the Cardinals were driving for the winning touchdown, television cameras caught Pro Bowl wideout Boldin in a heated sideline conversation with Haley. Players said the fiery Boldin, who missed the previous week's victory over the Panthers with a hamstring injury, was questioning Haley's use of a two tight-end formation that left him on the sidelines with the season on the line. Boldin's frustration, said one Arizona player, "was a heat-of-battle thing." But Boldin, who caught four passes for 34 yards, wasn't around to explain himself afterward, as he showered, dressed and bolted out of the stadium faster than most fans. Already upset about his contract – he has two years left on a deal that pays him roughly half of what Fitzgerald is making – Boldin may also have been struggling with the notion that he is being eclipsed in the postseason by his fellow Pro Bowl receiver. Warner, who is close with Boldin, was concerned enough Sunday night to text him and ask if everything was cool. "I'm good," Boldin responded, but I'm not so sure. Look, I'm a huge Boldin fan, and I understand his desire not to speak to reporters if he was truly that angry. We all get frustrated at work, and the desire to be out there to help his team in a time of need speaks to his competitive fire. However, here's what I would say to 'Q': Dude, your team is going to the Super Bowl. You played a major role in helping it ascend to this level, and you just took part in the greatest victory in franchise history. Even if this isn't enough to make you happy, you should at least try to fake it.

When Ravens halfback Willis McGahee fumbled after absorbing a resounding, helmet-to-helmet hit from Steelers safety Ryan Clark with 3:29 remaining, it basically ended Baltimore's valiant season – a sobering moment for a proud and relentless team. Then it became clear that McGahee might be very, very hurt, and missing out on a trip to the Super Bowl suddenly became secondary. The sight of Ray Lewis kneeling on the field, obviously praying for McGahee's safety while processing the finality of an intensely contested campaign, was truly poignant. Fortunately, it appears McGahee is going to recover – ESPN's Rachel Nichols, quoting the Ravens' team physician, reported that the veteran halfback has a concussion and severe neck pain but is "neurologically intact." The Ravens, despite the apparent impending loss of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to the Jets as New York's next head coach, will be OK, too. First-year coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco will only get better, and I expect Lewis, one of the great leaders of his era, to re-sign with the Ravens and try to inspire another title run.

So Julius Peppers, through his agent, has announced that he wants out of Carolina in the wake of the Panthers' disappointing playoff defeat to the Cardinals? Hey, it's his career, and I guess I'll take his word for it that his potential is somehow being squelched in Carolina. But then I think back to the way this talented but wildly inconsistent defensive end disappeared in the playoffs – did he even play against the Cardinals, or was that a stunt double wearing his jersey? – and my eyes begin to roll back in my head. Peppers apparently wants to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense and said in a statement that he strongly feels that "making a move at this time is in my best interest." And it's in the Panthers' best interest to franchise Peppers by Feb. 19, a week before he'd become an unrestricted free agent, and swing a trade so that they can get something in return for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft. Get ready for an offseason saga which, combined with the uncertainty over starting quarterback Jake Delhomme's future, could portend a major comedown for Carolina in '09.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. How, if the mere act of flying through a flock of birds can imperil a commercial airliner's ability to function, there aren't more scary incidents like last Thursday's Miracle on the Hudson. Because if you think about it, the friendly skies are filled with lots of, you know, flying creatures. Can a school of fish sink a cruise ship? I really hope not.

2. What was going through the mind of the misguided juveniles who used gasoline to desecrate the front lawn of the house in Chandler, Ariz., where McNabb and his wife, Roxie, live with their children over the offseason. According to a friend of Mrs. McNabb's, "Go Cards" and other similar messages were burned into the front lawn one night last week. This had to be especially scary to the couple's four-year-old daughter, Alexis, who was staying in the house with Roxie and the couple's six-week-old twins. Apparently one of the culprits was identified after leaving a box at the scene with a mailing label affixed bearing his name and address, so we're obviously not talking about criminal masterminds here. But it's tough to imagine that anyone over the age of eight doesn't understand that burning something on the lawn of a house occupied by African-Americans carries deeper social overtones that are highly disturbing. I'm told Donovan took a photo of the damaged lawn and used it as a motivating force for Sunday's game. I hope it's the last time he or any other professional athlete ever has that opportunity.

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

As McGahee lay motionless on the turf and his rattled teammates, 65,350 hushed fans and millions of concerned TV-watchers prayed he hadn't sustained a severe or even life-threatening injury, the person or people in charge of the Heinz Field sound system seemed to be operating in a completely different solar system. Somehow, it was decided that the frightening moment called for a pair of rock ditties: Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Down on the Corner" and Santana's "Smooth" (featuring Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 on vocals). Nice decision. Hey, a man may be paralyzed, but let's all nod our heads to the beat and listen to Carlos' nimble guitar solo and get fired up for the next play. Awful – and deserving of a classic-rock dedication in its own right. Enjoy.

TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"Really awesome"
– Text Sunday night from Hall of Fame quarterback and Warner admirer Steve Young

"It was amazing. There was a fan sitting ctside that was ejected by the ref. If I hadn't known u were in az …"
– Text from UCSB women's basketball coach and fantasy adventurer Lindsay Gottlieb, a former Cal assistant, after yelling at her TV set while watching the 11th ranked Golden Bears' dramatic, 57-54 victory over No. 9 Stanford at jam-packed Haas Pavilion Sunday afternoon.