Cardinals’ Warner still going strong

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For all the times Kurt Warner persevered through potential career extinction, for all the faith he displayed in the face of rampant skepticism, this was one scenario he couldn’t have contemplated.

As Warner prepares to lead the Arizona Cardinals into Saturday’s first-round playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons at University of Phoenix Stadium, the distinct possibility exists that the 37-year-old quarterback will have outlasted the Arena Football League, the very entity that kept his faint NFL dreams afloat more than a decade ago.

“That,” Warner said Thursday, “is something I never saw coming.”

Photo Warner talks to former Rams teammate Trent Green after the Cards clinched the NFC West.
(US Presswire/Mark J. Rebilas)

With the AFL having suspended operations for the 2009 season and staring at potential disbandment in a failing economy, Warner’s old Iowa Barnstormers jersey may prove to be a collector’s item. The same goes for the Amsterdam Admirals uniform he wore in NFL Europe, a league that went under in ’07.

At least for now, the apron he wore while stocking shelves for the Hy-Vee supermarket in Cedar Rapids, Iowa remains suitable for dumping on eBay.

“It’s kind of unfortunate,” Warner says of his ex-employer’s possible demise. “I thought the Arena League would kind of go on forever, that it would get stronger and become even more solidified. I don’t know if I’ll outlast the NFL, though – as far as I know, it’s still going strong.”

So, too, is Warner’s well-worn right arm, which continues to dispense those wobbly yet insanely accurate passes in hearty portions. Whether the quarterback returns for a 12th NFL season remains uncertain, though given that he just led the Cardinals to their first division title in 33 years while earning his first Pro Bowl selection since 2001, the smart money is that the soon-to-be-free-agent will sign a new deal with Arizona sometime before the ’09 NFL draft in late April.

Still, as I reported during a particularly dicey stretch early in the ’08 campaign that included a scary injury to teammate Anquan Boldin, the prospect of retirement is something that Warner weighs on a regular basis.

While engaging in Saturday’s showdown with the surprising Falcons will undoubtedly affirm Warner’s childlike love of the sport, the pressure he feels to carry a team that has been maddeningly inconsistent is a constant drain on his enthusiasm.

“This season has been an emotional roller coaster,” says Warner, who’ll start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl in February. “There are times when I think I can play forever, and there are other moments where I think, ‘I don’t want to go through this again.’

“I know it’s hard for a lot of people to understand, but it’s really not the physical part of it that causes me to think about retiring. Really, where it’s worn on me is the mental part: For most of my career, I’ve felt I really have to perform at a high level for our teams to succeed, and it stresses you out. It’s like, ‘If I don’t have a good game, we’re not gonna win,’ and that’s taken some of the fun out of the Monday-through-Saturday stuff.”

Recent Sundays have, at times, approximated a Greatest Show on Turf highlight reel from the Rams’ record-setting stretch between 1999 and 2001, when Warner won a pair of Most Valuable Player awards and led the team to two Super Bowls. This season, the quarterback was considered a frontrunner to win a third MVP until he and the Cards (9-7), after clinching the NFC West on the first Sunday of December, struggled in lopsided losses to the Vikings and Patriots. He still managed to finish among the NFL leaders in passing yards (4,583, second), completion percentage (67.1, second), touchdown passes (30, third) and passer rating (96.9, third).

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who didn’t name Warner his starter until Matt Leinart struggled in the team’s final preseason game, credits the Super Bowl XXXIV MVP with making better receivers out of Pro Bowl starters Boldin (89 catches, 1,038 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Larry Fitzgerald (96 catches, 1,431 yards, 12 TDs), as well as the team’s No. 3 receiver, second-year man Steve Breaston (77 catches, 1,006 yards, three TDs). It was only the fifth time in NFL history that a team had three 1,000-yard receivers in a season.

“Another thing that has made a huge impact with everyone is that Kurt was willing to compete for his job,” Whisenhunt says. “I mean, here’s a guy who was a two-time MVP and who has had incredible success in this league, and there’s no entitlement with him. He was so eager to play that he said, ‘Just give me a chance to show what I can do; that’s all I ask.’ How can you not follow a guy like that?”

In ’07, Whisenhunt’s first season with the Cardinals, the coach began using Warner in relief of Leinart, the 10th overall pick of the ’06 draft. When Leinart suffered a season-ending clavicle fracture in early October, Warner took over as the starter, ultimately playing through a left elbow dislocation to help the Cards to an 8-8 season.

Photo This has been an emotionally-draining campaign at times for Warner.
(US Presswire/Mark J. Rebilas)

Yet afterward, Whisenhunt declared Leinart the starter heading into ’08, and the team’s negotiations with Warner on a contract extension went nowhere. Warner, who had previously been discarded by the Rams and Giants, believed Whisenhunt’s assurances that he’d still be given a chance to win the starting job by outperforming Leinart in the summer.

“People like me, who are more cynical, would say, ‘Yeah, you’ve been told that before. How do you trust anybody?’ ” Kurt’s wife, Brenda, says. “But Kurt, even when things seem bad, tends to see things from a positive perspective. He believed there’d be a competition.”

Logic would dictate that, heading into next season, Warner would be the Cards’ presumed starter – if he decides not to retire. It’s a subject he and Brenda won’t start contemplating until after Arizona’s final playoff game, and a gesture of appreciation from the organization would go a long way toward compelling him to return. He does not seem to have any desire to be a backup, for the Cards or anyone else.

“That might even be the first component – what are their plans for the future, and do those plans include me?” Warner says. “If they don’t, do you move your family and try to hook up with a new team and learn a new offense? So the first thing I want to know is, am I part of your plans for the future, and are you committed to me for one year, or two years, or how long?

“In a perfect world, I would want to come back and play. I don’t feel I’ve been called to do something else yet.”

While also noncommittal, Whisenhunt sounds similarly encouraged that Warner will remain in Arizona in ’09.

“I think both sides are very open to where we go in the future – at least, I certainly hope so,” the coach says. “I can’t speak for Kurt, but I think he’s enjoyed this year, and I think he’s pleased he could return to the form that he always knew was still there, but maybe some other people doubted. Hopefully, something will be worked out.”

Warner, who has seven children, could be playing for his legacy – his late-career revival has generated talk about his Hall of Fame credentials. But the deeply spiritual passer says he has learned to “trust that God’s plan for me isn’t necessarily the same as my plan. But whatever the situation, instead of fighting it, I try to use it as a learning experience. I believe God’s going to show me when it’s time to get out. When that happens, I hope I see it.”

In the meantime, Warner’s getting ready for his first playoff game in seven years, while the Arena League’s powerbrokers ponder whether to close up shop. How many of us saw that coming?

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Jacked up for their first home playoff game in 61 seasons, the Cardinals will jump out to a big lead over the Falcons, then hang on for a dramatic victory. … The Colts will rediscover their running game in a convincing defeat of the Chargers. … Led by (who else?) Ray Lewis, with some help from Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed, the Ravens will overwhelm the Dolphins and set up a very physical showdown with the Titans.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

San Diego, for Saturday evening’s first-round playoff game between the Colts and Chargers. I’m sure the guys on the home team will be happy to see me, given that, according to one player, the column I wrote about them last Monday was posted in their locker room this week. We’ll see if it has a different motivational effect than my preseason prediction that San Diego would play in the Super Bowl.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. After broadcasting an interview in which Jets halfback Thomas Jones tees off on teammate Brett Favre, famed New York City hip-hop station WQHT changed its handle to “Cold 97.”

2. When Liverpool captain and Coldplay fan Steven Gerrard was arrested last Monday at a Southport bar in connection with a brawl that left a disc jockey with facial injuries, the interrogating officer’s first question was, “With apologies to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, do you know how I know you’re gay?”

3. In an effort to discredit media speculation about various Raiders coaching candidates, senior executive John Herrera angrily referred to one journalist as a “throwing-pie throwing buddy” of these awesome Americans.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

Two 50-year anniversary milestones occurred on Thursday: It marked exactly half a century since the Cuban revolution and since Cal’s last Rose Bowl appearance. I’m not sure what to read into that; all I can tell you is that one of those five-decade streaks has had a much bigger impact on my day-to-day reality than the other.

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

This guy. Happy New Year, everyone.

THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

In the wake of the Golden Bears’ dramatic 24-17 victory over Miami in the Emerald Bowl, Cal athletic director extraordinaire Sandy Barbour announced that she had signed coach Jeff Tedford to a contract extension through the 2015 season, which should ensure that the program’s most productive run in decades will continue. And, despite the departure of stud seniors like Zack Follett (whose forced fumble essentially won the Emerald Bowl), Alex Mack, Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder, Tedford’s Bears will be ready to crank it up another notch in ’09. As Heisman candidate Jahvid Best said after rushing for 186 yards in the team’s fifth bowl victory in six seasons: “We are looking for a national championship.” If the Bears find it, I know a lot of people who will be looking to plant enormous kisses on the faces of Best and his teammates. Some of them are even female.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

USC football academic meatheads

ROLLIN’ WITH THE ROYALS

Reading’s five-game winning streak came to a halt last weekend, but it’s tough to complain about a year-end flurry which featured a pair of thrilling comebacks, the retention of the Royals’ second-place standing in the Football League Championship table and the knighting of club chairman John Madejski for charitable services. The drama began in last Friday’s Boxing Day showdown with fourth-place Cardiff City at Madejski Stadium, as Reading fell behind 1-0 in the 89th minute on a goal by Michael Chopra. Desperate for the equaliser, the Royals won a corner in the sixth minute of injury time and pulled keeper Adam Federici up. Nice move by manager Steve Coppell: After a Michael Duberry shot was deflected back, Federici, standing two feet from the Cardiff goal, was there to hammer it home, setting off a wild celebration that continued as the tie became official following the kickoff.

Two days later Reading traveled to Southampton to face a team that is second-to-last in the FLC table but which stunned the Royals by a 2-1 score at Madejski in late November. Saints gave Reading trouble once again, going up 1-0 on a David McGoldrick breakaway strike in the 74th minute. Then minutes later, after Duberry knocked down a Southampton free kick, Shane Long fought through a crowd of players to head home for the 1-1 draw. Still in second place with 51 points – ahead of Birmingham on goal differential, and seven points behind league-leading Wolverhampton – the Royals have a rematch with Cardiff City Saturday in the FA Cup opener, this time on the road. Last season the Bluebirds reached the FA Cup final before falling to Portsmouth, 1-0, at Wembley Stadium. League play resumes next Friday, as Reading hosts Watford.

TRIPPIN’ ON E(MAIL)

“Michael … just wanted to say it’s always nice to read sports thoughts and facts from a hottie. … Keep up the great job … kind thoughts always … MJ”

Marijane
Ponte Vedra, Fla.

My face just turned redder than former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan’s.


“As a girl, I tend to run across guys who have a hard time believing I’m capable of understanding the workings of the NFL. It’s made especially harder since I’m a born-and-raised Washington Redskins fan, and a lot of the guys I know don’t quite understand that. I just wanted to say thank you for the articles you’ve written. I read them all the time. Not only do they help me show those guys that my female brain is capable of understanding and enjoying football, but they manage to be informative without lacking in entertainment. Just the other day, a friend of mine made a comment about the playoffs that was total B.S. He didn’t listen when I set him straight. So I proceeded to pull up article after article to show him how stupid he had sounded. Thanks for that amazing confidence boost. I’m glad that you’re sticking around. The football season would be really bland without your insights.”

Meg
Harrisonburg, Va.

Thanks for returning the confidence boost. (Not that I need it, but still … )


This column is ridiculous, Michael. How can you call the Chargers a fraud when we have been one of the highest teams in the NFL the past few weeks? You of all people should know how much momentum is a huge benefit going into the playoffs. Plus, with the way LT [LaDainian Tomlinson] and [Darren] Sproles are running the ball right now, I don’t know anyone who can stop them, especially Indy’s run defense. So eat your words, son!”

Jerrell
San Diego

What position do you play, Dad? And, based on your own assertion, why are you and your teammates so high?


“Mike, you are a true East Coast hack! Please, in your future postings, write about how wrong you were when the Chargers go deep in the playoffs. Teams that peak at the right time usually do the best come playoff time. Show me your lightning bolt!”

Steve Duntley
San Diego

Two things, Steve: First, how much more obvious do I have to make it that I am a Californian? Secondly – and this is for fans of all teams – do you honestly believe that if a journalist has a less lofty opinion of the team for which you root than you do, the only possible explanation is that he/she is biased against that team? That’s some pretty deep thinking.


“You’re a fraud.”

Tom Oliver
San Diego

That’s Mr. Fraud to you.


“‘Pioli’s shameless father-in-law, Miami executive vice president of operations Bill Parcells, who according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen may be ready to execute an out clause relating to a Dolphins ownership change, pocket $12 million for a year’s worth of work and jump to another franchise.’ Are you serious!? If Parcells jumps ship, that would be one of the lowest, most despicable acts to come along in a very long time. Almost as bad as Dick Chenney pandering WOMD in Iraq.”

James
Miamisburg, Ohio

Listen, James, if you think I’m just going to sit back and let you compare Parcells to perhaps the most destructive vice president in American history – why, you’re absolutely right.


Rookie of the decade? To M. Ryan? Wow, guess you forgot quickly how many games Ben Roethlisberger won as a rookie with the Steelers. Yes, he had a better team, but the Falcons also have a good team this year. Compare the W’s and L’s, then make your choice for Rookie of the Decade. (sorry if I left other deserving rookies out of this matter).”

Alejandro G
Athens, Texas

I didn’t forget Big Ben’s impressive victory total as a rookie – and I’m absolutely a huge admirer of what he has done since – but I believe Ryan is at a more advanced stage of development than Roethlisberger was. Easy, Steelers fans – it’s not like I stomped on a Terrible Towel or anything …


“Your friends [Steelers fans] must be awesome. They should also give you a brief history of the Terrible Towel. Its creator, Myron Cope, was the longest tenured team announcer in NFL history before his death, and now the towel honors him, in part. Also, proceeds of sales go to the Allegheny Valley School, which provides care for over 900 students with mental and physical disabilities. It has been written that the towel is arguably the best known fan symbol in professional sports. The towel has been seen on the Great Wall of China, the South Pole, Saturday Night Live, to Vatican City, and at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest. It also has some history with opponents. In 1994, a Brown stepped on one – Steelers won 29-9. In 2005, TJ Housh[mandzadeh] wiped his feet on one – Steelers won 31-17. And now this year’s Titans did some stomping on the sacred cloth. Not only will that motivate an already motivated team, but it showed how classless the Titans are. They beat the Steelers soundly [albeit with a little help from Ben], but you should handle winning and losing the same way – with dignity and class. You disrespect the Towel, you disrespect Cope, disabled children, the team, the city, the fans, history, and my grandmother. And no one disrespects my grandmother.”

Scott Seiple
Columbus, Ind.

My friends are, like, totally awesome, and I was fortunate enough to meet Cope (also a highly accomplished sportswriter) years ago. That’s touching about the way the proceeds for the towel are distributed. However, with all due respect to you and your grandmother, getting worked up over a “sacred” cloth still makes you sound like a 6-year-old.


“Mike, my 14-year-old grandson just ask me, how the hell did you get a job? I would also like to know.”

Ron
Newman, Calif.

For starters, I learned how to use the past tense of the verb “ask” in a sentence. I also learned, at a surprisingly young age (say, younger than 14), the value of being polite.


“I say, I predict, I honestly feel in my gut that the Baltimore Ravens will be the Super Bowl champions of this NFL season. As a lifelong Cowboys fan, it is hard as hell for me to utter such a thing, but my gut-o-meter is ringing harder than I can bear with this notion. If I am right, neat story. If I am wrong, I will donate $1,000 to a reader-chosen charity. Publish this email, keep me in the loop, this thing is on like Donkey Kong. Thank you for your great NFL coverage, Kyle”

Kyle Provost
Reno, Nev.

That is an aggressive move, and given the potential windfall for the charity of the readers’ choice – or the possibility of writing some really cool columns about the Ravens’ valiant run – I’m all for it.


“Hey Bud, in your recent article previewing Sunday’s key matchups in the NFL, you give a quick preface with an example of the Golden State Warriors failing season. You said they narrowly missed the playoffs? They actually went to the playoffs where they beat the Mavericks in the first round. Stick with football Michael. Jerry”

Jerry
Hollister, Calif.

They actually beat the Mavericks in the first round of the 2006-07 playoffs, as I noted, and narrowly missed getting in last year. Stick with correcting your kids’ homework, Bud.


“Why would the Patriots cheer for the Dolphins? They need them to lose to the Jets in order to win the division – get your facts straight.”

Paul
Ajax, Ontario

Get your facts straight, and please start by re-reading the sentence in question: I wrote that the Pats would be rooting for the Dolphins (or Ravens) to stumble. (And for you ‘Animal House’ fans …) I’m not joking; this is my job.


“Are you ready for Saturday’s game a.k.a The U whooping Cal? Honestly, I’m expecting a good game.”

Justin
Miami

Ready, willing and able.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

The last time we heard a hypothetical offering from Dolphins executive vice president of player operations Bill Parcells, he was serenading Jason Taylor in the hope of getting the pass rusher to stay in Miami. Taylor ended up in Washington, and now comes word that Parcells may leave as well, thanks to an out clause in the contract he negotiated with outgoing owner Wayne Huizenga last December. Some might think that shaking down the new boss, Stephen Ross, in the heat of a surprising playoff run is a punk move; if you’re familiar with the Tuna’s history, the notion of him doing this Mike Ness sendup (to the tune of Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain”) isn’t all that surprising:

Well it’s been a year, time to disappear
Now look at the mess you’re in –
A brand new scheme and a rising team,
Playoff time for the Dolphins
Well you sit and you pray
That I’m gonna decide to stay
But before you drink to my health
Just know that you will have to pay

Take away, take away
Take away this ball and chain
I’m restless and disloyal
And I just cannot be constrained
Take away, take away
Like a moth that’s drawn to flame
Take away, take away
Take away … this ball and chain

Well I rebuilt the Pats
And left with lots of strife
I groomed Scott Pioli you see
He even made my daughter his wife
But wherever he might go
He might find that I beat him there
It might mess up his life
But I don’t really care

Take away, take away
Take away this ball and chain
I’m restless and disloyal
And I don’t have any more shame
Take away, take away
Like a moth that’s drawn to flame
Take away, take away
Take away … this ball and chain

Well I shafted Kraft at the Super Bowl
We lost to the Pack
I took Hess’ money
Put it in a green backpack
Torpedoed Tony Dungy
And made my way to Tampa Bay
Then I left the Glazers hangin’
And they kept me out the Hall of Fame

Take away, take away
Take away this ball and chain
I’m restless and disloyal
Ask George Young or Arthur Blank
Take away, take away
In Dallas I made it rain
Take away, take away
Take away … this ball and chain