For the first time in several hours, the Arizona Cardinals' magnificent quarterback could sit back and take it all in without feeling like anything less than perfection would devastate a team and a region.
"It's not too often that you play a full football game and feel like you didn't make any mistakes," Warner said as he and his wife, Brenda, drove home from University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday evening after a 51-45 overtime victory over the Green Bay Packers in an epic first-round playoff game. "I mean, one mistake could have killed us, and we kept scoring and scoring. And still, they kept coming back, and we couldn't put it away. That game was awesome. It was amazing. Amazing!"
The man wasn't lying. His assessment of the three-and-a-half hour instant classic was as eerily accurate as his sublime passes.
In addition to being the highest-scoring game in postseason history, this was one of the NFL's greatest games, period. It simultaneously validated the Packers' young Pro Bowl quarterback, Aaron Rodgers(notes), as an emerging star and elevated Warner, a future Hall of Famer, into the realm of the ethereal.
Not long after Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby(notes) raced 17 yards with a fumble recovery to send the defending NFC champions into next Saturday's divisional-round game against the top-seeded New Orleans Saints at the Louisiana Superdome – and send most of the 61,926 fans into foot-stomping, stranger-hugging hysterics – Warner arrived at his locker. I asked him if he knew what his statistics were for the day, and he shook his head no.
So I told him: 29 completions in 33 attempts for 379 yards, with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Those are scary stats. In three dimensions, with touch and depth and context factored in, Warner's performance was even more impressive. It was Montanaesque. It was vintage Warner from the Greatest Show on Turf heyday, circa 1999.
Quite possibly, it was better.
"And you know what?" Warner said of his crazy numbers. "We needed every one of them."
The NFL needed this game, too. On a weekend in which brute force accounted for a pair of emphatic road upsets in the AFC – the New York Jets bludgeoning the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday and the Baltimore Ravens demolishing the New England Patriots on Sunday – as well as the Dallas Cowboys' home blowout of the NFC East-rival Philadelphia Eagles Saturday night, the Cardinals and Packers gave football fans their fill of offensive explosiveness. No wonder Arizona linebacker Clark Haggans(notes), asked about Warner's performance, invoked the name of another local floor leader: "Oh, Steve Nash?" Haggans asked. "AKA Kurt Warner? Incredible, huh?"
If this game didn't get your heart racing, you probably need a pacemaker.
It started out as a quintessential blowout. The Cardinals, after absorbing a 33-7 spanking from the Packers the previous Sunday in what turned out to be a meaningless regular-season finale, quickly lay waste to the whole playoff-momentum-is-paramount theory – even with star wideout Anquan Boldin(notes) watching from the sidelines with knee and ankle injuries.
On the first play from scrimmage, Rodgers' pass was tipped by Dansby and intercepted by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes). Warner, after an incompletion on his first attempt, drove the Cards down the field, and they scored on Tim Hightower's(notes) one-yard run.
Early in the second quarter it was 17-0 Arizona, and Warner had the ball at the Green Bay 22-yard line. The game was so over – until Pro Bowl wideout Larry Fitzgerald(notes), after catching a short pass from Warner, got stripped by the Packers' star cornerback, Charles Woodson(notes), and rookie linebacker Clay Matthews(notes) recovered and returned the ball 29 yards to the Packers' 48. Rodgers drove the Pack down the field and dove in from the 1 midway through the second quarter to make it 17-7, the first step of a dogged comeback march.
After Warner's longest completion of the day, a 33-yard dart to Fitzgerald (six receptions, 82 yards) on the first drive of the second half, the Cards had a 31-10 lead and seemed to be on cruise control. Rodgers (28 of 42, 422 yards, four TDs), in his first playoff start, served as a human speed bump.
Midway through the quarter, Rodgers lofted an absurdly placed ball to the corner that wideout Greg Jennings(notes) spun around to catch with his left hand while falling backward. (Jennings would have an equally outrageous reception late in the game, a sideline snag that helped Green Bay set up the touchdown that forced overtime.) Packers coach Mike McCarthy caught the Cards off guard with an onside kick, and Rodgers launched another scoring drive, completing it by scrambling to his right and connecting with wideout Jordy Nelson(notes) on a 10-yard touchdown with 4:14 to go.
Said Warner: "We were on the sidelines wondering, 'How do these guys keep getting back into it? What's it going to take?' "
Warner thought he'd subdued the Packers for good with 2:34 left in the third quarter. On first-and-five from the Green Bay 11, he stepped up in the pocket and, just before it collapsed, unleashed what he assumed was a throwaway in the general vicinity of Fitzgerald, who had pushed past Woodson and was drifting toward the back of the end zone.
"I saw that Larry was double-teamed, and I was trying to throw it away in the back of the end zone," Warner said later. "I thought if I threw it in Larry's general direction, maybe he could get his hands on it, but if not nobody else could get to it. What happened was I got hit, and it didn't go nearly as far as I wanted it to. Then I was on the bottom of the pile and people were going crazy."
That's because Fitzgerald made a diving, one-handed catch that was every bit as spectacular as Jennings' grabs. "It was Kurt's day," Fitzgerald said afterward. "I'm just happy to be part of his story. I felt like it was my fumble that turned the game around; we had stymied them until then. I had to do something to make up for it."
And still, the Pack came back. After a pair of Rodgers-led scoring drives sandwiched around Arizona's lone punt of the day, the game was tied at 38.
"I thought we were going to win," Rodgers said. "We had all the momentum."
Warner's response? An 11-play, 80-yard drive culminating with another gorgeous touchdown grab, this time a spinning 17-yard catch by wideout Steve Breaston(notes) (seven catches, 125 yards) in the middle of the end zone with 4:55 remaining.
Over the next three minutes, Warner stood on the sidelines slack-jawed as Rodgers coolly led Green Bay on a seven-play, 71-yard drive, tying the game at 45 on an 11-yard pass to tight end Spencer Havner(notes).
Warner in postseason with Cards
Jan. 10, 2010
29-33, 379 yds.
Feb. 1, 2009
Lost to Steelers,
31-43, 377 yds.
Jan. 18, 2009
21-28, 279 yds.
Jan. 10, 2009
21-32, 220 yds.
Jan. 3, 2009
19-32, 271 yds.
The ending was suitably surreal: Warner, who got the ball back with 1:46 remaining, drove the Cards from their own 21 to the Packers' 16 to set up a 34-yard field goal attempt by Neil Rackers(notes) with 14 seconds to go. The normally dependable kicker rushed it and pushed the ball wide left, setting off a celebration on the Green Bay sideline.
When the Packers won the toss at the start of overtime, it looked like Warner might be the first quarterback in NFL history to play a perfect game and lose.
Had Rodgers not slightly overthrown the wide-open Jennings on a deep pass on the first play from scrimmage in OT, the Pack almost certainly would have prevailed. Instead, the Cardinals' defense ended things two plays later: Cornerback Michael Adams(notes) blitzed and dislodged the ball from Rodgers, who instinctively kicked it up and into the waiting arms of Dansby, who rambled 17 yards for the score.
After an end-zone mob scene, the exhausted Cardinals exhaled and contemplated their next challenge – a matchup with the potent Saints and Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees(notes) – while marveling that they'd survived this dynamic duel.
"Let me tell you something, that dude is scary," Arizona free safety Antrel Rolle(notes) said of Rodgers. "We have a great defense, and we were up on him and ready to pounce, and he found ways to tear us apart.
"I don't ever want to face him again in my life. I am dead serious. I'll face Drew Brees any day of the week before I face him again."
The Packers, meanwhile, would gladly join their counterparts from 30 other teams in urging Warner, 38, to call it a career. After leading the Cards to their first Super Bowl last season and coming within 35 seconds of winning a championship, Warner signed a two-year, $23 million deal, but there has been speculation that he'll serve only half of it.
“Don’t let Kurt retire,” Fitzgerald said when I saw him after the game, apparently mistaking me for Brenda. “I’m having too much fun.”
When Warner took what seemed to be a postgame victory lap Sunday, many perceived it as a farewell gesture.
"All I'm going to say is that I'm playing out this season and taking us as far as we can go in the playoffs, and then I'll come to a decision," Warner said as he and Brenda neared their Paradise Valley home. "And when I make that decision, I will let everybody know. Trust me, I'll be very direct."
Until then, the NFL's answer to Don Larsen will try to summon an encore to Sunday's awesome, amazing and peerless performance.
If he has his way, he'll keep putting the ball exactly where he wants to, time and time again, and doing whatever it takes to live to play another day.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
Ravens RB Ray Rice runs for an 83-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against the Patriots during wild-card game.
(Al Bello/Getty Images)
• OK, it’s official: I hereby apologize to the Ravens and Jets for having questioned their legitimacy before the playoffs. Though both teams may have done their share of stumbling before earning wild-card berths, they barged through the postseason door with an urgency that overwhelmed their favored opponents. I’ll get to the Jets a little later; the Ravens rolled into Gillette Stadium Sunday and treated the AFC East-champion Patriots like a bunch of has-beens who had all the mystique of Senate majority leader Harry Reid, winning 33-14 to advance to face the top-seeded Colts in Indy Saturday night. On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Baltimore halfback Ray Rice(notes) raced through a monster hole and sprinted 83 yards for a touchdown. Three plays later, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs(notes) beat tackle Matt Light(notes) around the edge, punched the ball out of quarterback Tom Brady’s(notes) passing hand and recovered a fumble. The Ravens forced two more turnovers and led 24-0 after a quarter; they intercepted Brady three times for the day. “Had to give them that humbling ass-whippin’,” Suggs wrote later via text message. And though the comprehensive defeat can hardly be blamed on one man, Baltimore’s treatment of wideout Randy Moss(notes) (five catches, 48 yards), who was bumped and battered by cornerback Domonique Foxworth(notes) and other Ravens defenders, seemed to be a Ravens rallying cry. “Locked his ass up!” Suggs texted. Later, middle linebacker Ray Lewis(notes) responded to a text inquiring about Moss’ lack of production thusly: “Ask the Patriots, bro. They pay him.” Ouch.
• I know this is the last thing New Yorkers want to hear, but the Cowboys are starting to remind me of the ’07 Giants, a team that got hot at the right time, approached big games without fear and used a ferocious pass rush to pester opposing quarterbacks into submission, all the way to a championship. On Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium, Dallas relentlessly pressured Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb(notes) in a 34-14 thrashing of Philly. It was the fourth consecutive game in which the Cowboys had at least three sacks, and it’s very easy to imagine them making Brett Favre(notes) uncomfortable at the Metrodome next Sunday. Oh, and that whole Tony Romo(notes) can’t-win-in-the-postseason mantra? Done. And those of you who swore by it might want to start wrapping your heads around the notion that he’s a cold-blooded killer who’s playing the best football of his life at a very opportune moment.
• Speaking of QBs with high Q-ratings, it’s tough not to be impressed with the poise displayed by Jets rookie Mark Sanchez(notes), who elevated his game in New York’s 24-14 upset of the Bengals Saturday afternoon. Though the Jets’ formula for winning revolves around a smothering defense and a physical rushing attack, Sanchez was more than just a caretaker on Saturday. He connected on 12 of 15 passes (one of the incompletions was an end-zone drop by Braylon Edwards(notes)) for 182 yards and a touchdown against a strong defense with perhaps the league’s best cornerback tandem. “The playoffs are not too big for him,” tackle Damien Woody(notes) wrote via text Saturday night. Neither was the postgame news conference: Sanchez busted on his former college coach, Pete Carroll, for reportedly leaving USC to take the Seahawks’ job – funny because it spoofed Carroll’s pissy reaction after Sanchez announced a year ago he would forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Clearly, Sanchez was just having fun, but there’s a stark truth behind the humor: The hypocrisy of college coaches who expect “loyalty” from their uncompensated student-athletes (well, maybe not at 'SC, but you get the point) while commanding fat paychecks – and then have no qualms about bolting for additional riches. That’s a subject for an entire column, and I’ll spare you for now, except to add this: For the record, as a proud Cal alum, I wholeheartedly endorse Carroll’s decision to return to the NFL.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco had two catches for 28 yards during Cincinnati's 24-14 wild card loss to the Jets.
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
• I know the Bengals’ Chad Ochocinco(notes) well enough to understand that asking for his reaction in the wake of a disappointing defeat in which he was unproductive is virtually guaranteed to provoke a "Just Throw Me The Damn Ball" sentiment. So, in a tribute to scavengers for low-hanging fruit throughout the world of sports journalism, I went ahead and threw out the question, and got the predictable response. Though many would argue that Ochocinco was simply the latest elite wideout to be shut down (on consecutive weekends) by Jets cornerback extraordinaire Darrelle Revis(notes), he viewed his two-catch, 28-yard performance as part of a season-long trend. “Just throw me the ball more than three times in a game of that magnitude,” Ochocinco texted Sunday. “They do that with every team we play. It’s always been that way. Unless it’s clear as day the ball ain’t coming.” Despite his frustration, Ochocinco remained upbeat about his and the Bengals’ future. Of quarterback Carson Palmer(notes), who struggled against the Jets, Ochocinco said, “He will be fine.” And Ocho himself? “I’ll be back bigger and badder with a wide range of [expletive]-talking.” Predictably, that makes me smile.
• The Pats’ quick playoff exit ensures that the 2009 season, for Bill Belichick, will be mostly remembered for his controversial gamble against the Colts. Yet curiously, needing a big comeback against the Ravens, Mr. Fourth Down played it conservatively on Sunday. Trailing 24-7 midway through the second quarter, Belichick punted on fourth-and-2 from his own 44. All those Harvard math whizzes and other stat geeks who rushed to defend him in November surely must have gasped. What about, you know, the percentages? On New England’s next drive, Belichick sent out the punt team on fourth-and-12 from the Ravens’ 36. Down 33-14 with nine minutes left in the game, the Pats did convert a fourth-and-17 from the Ravens’ 49. But later on that drive, facing fourth-and-11 from the 26, Belichick sent on Stephen Gostkowski(notes) to try to bring the Pats to within 16 points – and the kicker missed a 44-yard field goal, which I took as proof that the football gods have a sense of humor. OK, Pats fans, deep breaths, and some perspective: You were "team of the decade" (whatever the heck it’s called). You still have the best owner in football, an A-plus coach and a brilliant quarterback, Tom Brady, who fought back from major knee surgery in ’09 and should be stronger and more comfortable next season. For now, sit back and enjoy that Jets-Chargers game on Sunday, and try to figure out whether to root against Rex Ryan or LaDainian Tomlinson(notes).
• There was a report Sunday that “sources close to” Warner believe he’ll likely retire after the season – with the qualifier that “he could always change his mind.” In other news, sources close to Lindsey Lohan expect her to party till dawn next weekend, though she could always pass out by 2 a.m. My less-flippant reaction? As someone who wrote a book with Warner and who spent some time before Sunday’s game talking to the person to whom he’s closest (hint: he kissed her after the game), it’s my belief that there is no actual news to report. He will walk away after this year, or he won’t, and if he’s leaning one way or the other right now, it’s a wobbly stance that will require further reflection. His wife would be thrilled if he decided to stop playing, but she swears she won’t be the one driving the decision. Anyway, all of this reminds me of the time late in the 1994 season when Sports Illustrated, shortly after I joined the magazine, sent me to Kansas City to follow up on the latest of a countless stream of stories predicting that Joe Montana would soon retire. Montana had been dealing with reports of his imminent exit since he underwent back surgery in 1986; when he saw me walking into the Chiefs’ locker room with notebook and pen in hand, he smiled and shook his head. “Hey,” he said, “if people keep reporting that I’m quitting, at some point one of them is gonna be right.” I couldn’t argue with that logic.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That Jay Leno's return to NBC's late-night lineup after an aborted stint in the 10 p.m. slot was the lead story on cnn.com Sunday afternoon – as if anyone under the age of 45 really cares.
2. How longtime sportswriter Larry Fitzgerald Sr. can sit three seats away from me in the press box and watch his son play a pivotal role in one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen in any sport and barely make a sound. Seriously, if I were Big Fitz and I witnessed my boy make the insane, one-handed diving TD catch that put the Cardinals up 38-24 Sunday, I’d scream like Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell while my eyes popped out of my head like Mike Singletary’s back in the day. For that matter, I’d drop trou and parade around in my boxers. (None of these admissions, by the way, will surprise the soccer-parent peeps with whom I spent part of the weekend watching some very tense U-14 girls games in central California – and the Legends lived to play another weekend, meaning I’ll be even more of a sideline spectacle come Saturday.) Honestly, I’d have been a nervous wreck watching my sons watch Sunday’s game on TV – my 10-year-old in a Warner jersey, his 7-year-old brother in a Rodgers jersey, one of them destined to celebrate at the other’s expense. Meanwhile, back in the press box, Big Fitz calmly took notes and took it all in like Buddha. “When we get home he’s gonna tell me about the plays I should’ve made that I didn’t make,” Larry Jr. said in the locker room, laughing. “Typical father.” Or, possibly, a typical sportswriter, bless his impassive heart.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
As someone who has long been frustrated by the lack of opportunities afforded to qualified minority candidates for coaching and front-office positions, I tend to stick up for the Rooney Rule, because at its best it opens doors for impressive men who otherwise might go unnoticed. The classic example was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ coaching search after Bill Cowher retired three years ago: Without the Rooney Rule, the Rooneys (yes, quite appropriate) likely would have promoted one of two qualified in-house candidates from Cowher’s staff: current Cards coach Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm, Arizona’s assistant head coach. Instead, the system dictated that the Steelers’ owners slow down their search and bring in at least one qualified minority candidate – and when Mike Tomlin, then Minnesota’s 34-year-old defensive coordinator, sat down for his interview, he blew away his future bosses, who ended up giving him the job. How did that turn out? Well, when Tomlin’s Steelers and Whisenhunt’s Cardinals met in last February’s Super Bowl, it was Rooney Rule heaven. However, the rule, which has since been extended to general manager searches, doesn’t work so well when an aggressive owner is hell-bent on bringing in a specific, big-money, big-name coach – and the process then lends itself to sham interviews that make me question the edict’s effectiveness and which are an embarrassing waste of time.
This was the case with the Washington Redskins, who apparently managed to interview incumbent secondary coach Jerry Gray for the head-coaching gig that ultimately went to Mike Shanahan weeks before Jim Zorn was fired – and who pulled a similar move with an in-house candidate before de facto GM Vinny Cerrato’s announced ouster, with Bruce Allen being named as his replacement less than two hours later. Similarly, the Seattle Seahawks apparently cut a deal in principle with Carroll before they fired coach Jim Mora, making Saturday’s interview with Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier (who should be a very legitimate head-coaching prospect for any real opening, by the way) a superfluous spectacle. I’ll spare you the parsing of language that made these “searches” seem vaguely sincere, all with the complicit blessings of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. Bottom line: While Goodell, Wooten and some of the other people involved may have good intentions, they all come off like actors in a bad soap opera. The league should either figure out a way to improve the rule, abandon it altogether or insist on its application and enforce obvious attempts to circumvent it. And while I understand the logic behind the Seahawks’ courting of Carroll, I have very little sympathy for the franchise given that, two years ago, it ignored the spirit of the rule by anointing Mora, then an assistant, as Holmgren’s successor following the ’08 season. (The league subsequently amended the rule to allow for contractual succession.) Oh, and how did that turn out?
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
“OH MY GOD!!!”
– Text Sunday evening from my 10-year-old son, an unabashed Cardinals supporter, a few minutes after Dansby’s game-ending score