GLENDALE, Ariz. – Kurt Warner nearly tripped over halfback Edgerrin James, stumbling backward after a play-fake as the Buffalo Bills' pass rush collapsed the pocket around him. The Arizona Cardinals 37-year-old quarterback couldn't see his primary target, Pro Bowl wideout Larry Fitzgerald, as he released a crisp pass to the end zone that only about five NFL quarterbacks would dare attempt.
Warner, having absorbed a blow to his badly swollen right index finger just before the throw, landed hard on his back and winced. Then he heard the roar of 63,830 fans at University of Phoenix Stadium, reacting to Fitzgerald's diving catch between two defenders late in the third quarter that would extend Arizona’s lead – another big play by the Cardinals' most important player in a 41-17 victory over a previously undefeated team.
That made Warner happy. But not too happy: Instead of racing into the end zone to join the celebration, Warner simply got up and jogged to the sideline with his head down.
Up in Section 105 his wife, Brenda, shook her head in amazement.
"Seeing him out there today running around like a little boy, it was such a strange sensation," she explained after the game. "A week ago, when he told me he was going to retire, I was thinking, 'Wow, this is it. It's over.' Now, seeing him out there having so much fun? No way. He'll probably keep playing, for who knows how long."
When Warner plays the way he did on Sunday, the Cardinals (3-2), who hold a one-game lead over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West, look capable of finally becoming a legitimate contender. When they host the Dallas Cowboys next Sunday, it's not far-fetched to think that Warner could outduel Tony Romo and lead Arizona to its ninth victory in 11 home games under second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Seven days before bringing renewed hope to the Valley of the Sun, Warner was at the lowest point of his professional career. Distressed over a terrifying head injury to teammate Anquan Boldin, the father of seven had decided he was done playing football, effective immediately.
"Something scary like that just makes you contemplate what's really important and puts football in perspective," Warner reflected after Sunday's game. "It's things like that make you say, 'This game isn't everything, and I'm not sure if I can do this anymore.' Because the bottom line is that all I really want is to be able to go home to my wife and kids."
A week earlier the deeply religious passer worried that Boldin might not have that privilege. Warner was in a dark and scary place as he rode a team bus from Giants Stadium, where the Cards had just been drubbed by the New York Jets, to the Newark Airport. Warner had been responsible for six turnovers in that 56-35 defeat, throwing three interceptions and losing three of four fumbles on a miserable afternoon, but that wasn't what gave him the sick feeling in his stomach.
Flashing through his head on continuous loop was the high pass he'd floated to Boldin in the front of the Jets' end zone with 27 seconds remaining, a futile throw that left the receiver sandwiched between defensive backs Kerry Rhodes and Eric Green. A helmet-to-helmet shot from Green snapped Boldin's head backwards and left him motionless on the ground, with teammates fearing that he'd been paralyzed. (The NFL later suspended Green for a game and fined him $50,000.)
Knocked momentarily unconscious, with blood spurting from his mouth, Boldin was strapped to a stretcher and taken to a local hospital. Warner, who had led a group of players from both teams in prayer on the field, left Giants Stadium without knowing whether or not his friend was permanently injured. He felt responsible, having purposely avoided similarly high-risk passes on the previous two plays before giving in and launching the ball that left the exceptionally tough Boldin motionless on the turf.
Sitting alone on the bus, praying under his breath while wiping away tears, Warner sent Brenda a text message that stunned her: This is it. I can't do this anymore. It's time to retire.
Recalled Brenda: "He meant, like, now."
Kurt's mood improved after learning that Boldin would be OK, as the wideout was released from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City later that evening and flew home on team executive Michael Bidwill's private jet. The standout player known as "Q" had surgery to repair a fractured sinus bone last Thursday night and missed Sunday's game, though he could return as early as next week.
Meanwhile, Warner's play on Sunday has everyone associated with the Cardinals feeling whole again. He completed 33 of 42 passes for 250 yards, including a pair of 2-yard scoring throws to Fitzgerald, spreading the ball around to nine receivers. Best of all, he made zero mistakes, allowing Arizona to win the turnover battle by a 4-0 margin.
Granted, the Bills suffered a major blow on the game's third play from scrimmage when a hard hit by blitzing Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson knocked out Buffalo quarterback Trent Edwards with a concussion. But the way Warner was running the Cards' offense on Sunday, even Jim Kelly in his heyday would’ve had a hard time keeping pace.
It was a dramatic bounce-back from Warner's turnover-fest against the Jets, which reignited fears that the ball-security issues which cost the two-time MVP starting jobs with the Rams, Giants and pre-Whisenhunt Cardinals had resurfaced.
To his credit Warner, after banging his index finger on a Jets defender's helmet early in the game, never used the injury as an excuse, though it prevented him from gripping the ball as tightly as normal.
Whisenhunt, who chose Warner as his starter over presumed franchise quarterback Matt Leinart after a training-camp competition, says he never considered making a switch.
"No, I didn't," Whisenhunt said after Sunday's game. "Kurt and I had a good discussion last week. We talked about what happened, and some of it obviously had to do with the circumstances of that game. But overall we're very happy with Kurt. There are things we've asked him to do, and there are some things we've done to adapt to what he does well. And when we don't make mistakes, we're a pretty good football team."
For all of the young talent on the Cardinals' roster, the key to Whisenhunt's team is Warner. That's something virtually no one saw coming after Arizona drafted Leinart, the former Heisman Trophy winner and USC star, with the 10th overall pick of the '06 draft and installed him as the team's starter in the fifth week of his rookie season.
Leinart may still have a bright future, but there's no doubt that the Cardinals are Warner's team.
"Kurt's the consummate professional," Fitzgerald said Sunday. "He's seen everything. He's been through the peaks and he's been through the valleys, and I know nothing's going to faze him. We're a different team to deal with when Kurt's playing at this level."
That was clear on Arizona's first drive when, on first-and-goal from the 2, he got to the line of scrimmage with the option to run or pass – one of the wrinkles Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have installed to take advantage of Warner's experience – and correctly identified the Bills' defense. After shouting out a play at the line that called for Fitzgerald, who was in the right slot, to run a fade to the corner of the end zone, Warner froze defensive backs Leodis McKelvin and Ashton Youboty with a sly pump fake. Both Bills defenders broke on an inside route as Warner lofted the ball to the wide-open Fitzgerald for the game's first score.
In the second quarter Warner absorbed a hit from linebacker Kawika Mitchell that split his chin, requiring stitches on the sidelines. He spent the rest of the game with a white adhesive bandage covering the bottom of his salt-and-pepper (OK, it's mostly salt) goatee. The quarterback's index finger, which earlier in the week had swelled to the size of 6-foot-4, 332-pound Arizona guard Deuce Lutui's, continued to affect his grip, but he found a way to make that work, too.
Warner never saw the outcome of the game's most memorable play, the scoring pass to Fitzgerald that the sprawled-out receiver somehow snatched between defenders McKelvin and Kyle Williams, giving the Cardinals a 31-17 lead.
"I'm sure he knew I would catch it," Fitzgerald reasoned. "It's all calculated with him. He saw me break free, and he put it where he needed to put it."
Well, maybe not.
"I had no idea he'd catch it," Warner said, laughing. "I was just trying to put it somewhere where only he could get it. But I really didn't think he could get there."
Call it blind faith – the same kind of unquestioned belief the Cardinals have in their graying quarterback.
"He looked so young out there today," Brenda said.
Too young to walk away, perspective be damned.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• When the Eagles jumped out to a 14-0 lead over the Redskins less than seven minutes into Sunday's game in Philadelphia, fans around the country nodded their heads knowingly. Coming off its 26-24 upset over the Cowboys in Dallas, Washington was surely experiencing the inevitable comedown in the brutal NFC East. But just as the Skins (4-1) fought back from their limp season-opening performance against the Giants to position themselves for a 7-1 start (their next three opponents are the Rams, Browns and Lions), they were unfazed by the early deficit in Philly; they proceeded to limit the Eagles to five first downs in the final three quarters. The signature play of Washington's 23-17 comeback victory came midway through the third quarter when, on first-and-10 from the Philly 18, wideout Antwaan Randle El took an end-around handoff and raced to his right while waiting for tight end Chris Cooley (eight catches, 109 yards) to get off the line of scrimmage Randle El, a former star quarterback at Indiana, sold the play perfectly, creeping up toward the line of scrimmage before flipping the ball to Cooley after he released his block of defensive end Darren Howard. Cooley caught the ball in stride inside the 10 and cruised in for his first touchdown of the season. "I was supposed to sell run on the backside, and it took me forever," Cooley said Sunday night after returning home to Virginia. "The reason Antwaan had to draw out the play was because I took so long. We knew I would get man coverage, and if I could block the defensive end we thought we could get the defensive back to buy into the end-around and let me run free. I got stuck in the middle on the defensive end longer than I wanted to, and Antwaan could've run the ball, but he made a really smart play by waiting."
• If the Colts were a little less prideful and resilient, they could well be 0-4 and looking ahead to a long, tumultuous offseason. They still may have to deal with that harsh reality come January, but in the meantime they remain in the mix of AFC contenders after Sunday's spectacular comeback victory over the Texans in Houston. Indianapolis (2-2) trailed 27-10 with just over four minutes left and faced a fourth-and-6 against a Houston team desperately trying to close out its first victory of the season. Game over, right? Uh, no. Peyton Manning threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Tom Santi. The Colts' defense forced a pair of Sage Rosenfels fumbles, the first of which was picked up by linebacker Gary Brackett, a smart, dependable player not known for his blazing speed. Put it this way: If Patrick Willis is DSL, Brackett is strictly dial-up. Or so we thought. Brackett rambled 68 yards down the sideline for a touchdown, shedding a would-be tackler in the process. With 1:54 remaining, Manning threw a fade to the left corner of the end zone that wideout Reggie Wayne managed to catch with one hand while doing a 360 and somehow dragging his feet in-bounds before hitting the grass. That description doesn't do the play justice; it was one of the greatest catches that any Colts receiver (Raymond Berry, Roger Carr, Marvin Harrison) has ever pulled down. After one last big play by the defense, an interception by Melvin Bullitt, Indy remained armed and dangerous heading into next Sunday's home game against the Colts.
• After enduring ample misery in 2007, the Falcons and Dolphins competed to hire Bill Parcells to run their respective front offices, with Miami prevailing in a bidding war. It turns out both franchises may have ended up as winners: Atlanta, with former Patriots scouting whiz Tom Dimitroff and first-year coach Mike Smith provoking a culture change, improved to 3-2 by beating the Packers in Green Bay. Unlike home victories over the Lions and Chiefs, this was a big-time triumph over a legitimate opponent, and the game's opening drive set the tone. Facing a fourth-and-goal from the Green Bay 1, Smith shrugged off the fact that the Falcons were 0-for-3 on fourth-down conversions in '08 and allowed rookie quarterback Matt Ryan to make a play. Rolling right after a play-fake to Michael Turner, Ryan completed a high-risk pass to tight end Justin Peelle for the score. Miami, too, has been aggressive in pursuit of victory under first-year coach Tony Sparano, whom Parcells hired to turn around a team that went 1-15 under Cam Cameron in '07. On Sunday the Dolphins (2-2) scored a second consecutive upset of one of last year’s AFC Championship game participants, beating the Chargers 17-10. As with its thrashing of the Patriots two weeks ago, Miami confused its opponent by repeatedly using the "Wildcat" formation, in which halfback Ronnie Brown takes a direct snap from center while fellow runner Ricky Williams motions across and either receives or pretends to receive a handoff. Meanwhile Miami's defense held LaDainian Tomlinson to 35 yards and stuffed him on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on the first play of the fourth quarter. That's macho, and it would never have happened in '07. The days of looking at a game against the Falcons or Dolphins as a soft spot on the schedule are over.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Five games into the season, we know three things about the Green Bay Packers: 1) Even without You Know Who, they still have a tough quarterback who can play through pain; 2) They remain very young and very talented; 3) They have serious issues right now. After losing 27-24 to the Falcons at Lambeau Field Sunday to drop to 2-3, the Pack can point to things like injuries in the secondary and the sluggish start by halfback Ryan Grant and his blockers. And, of course, many Cheeseheads will attribute the three-game losing streak to the absence of a certain legendary quarterback. Realistically, however, this is a team-wide crisis, albeit a correctable one. Take this example from the second quarter of Sunday's game: Trailing 17-7, the Packers faced a third-and-4 from the Atlanta 20 with two minutes left in the first half. Rodgers, who gutted out a separation of his throwing shoulder to complete 25 of 37 passes for 313 yards (with three TDs and an interception), couldn't get rid of the ball in time to avoid a 5-yard sack from John Abraham – mistake No. 1. That set up a 43-yard field goal attempt, which kicker Mason Crosby drilled. But the play was called back because of a holding penalty on Jermichael Finley – mistake No. 2 – setting up a 53-yard try that Crosby missed. Think those three points might have come in handy at game's end?
• The only potential good news for the Pack is that their next game is in Seattle, where former Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren and his players resemble a once-thriving rock band finishing out its record-company obligations with an utterly underwhelming CD. On Sunday, the Seahawks (1-3) took what amounted to a second consecutive bye week, giving up 342 yards by halftime in a 44-6 thrashing by the Giants. I knew when the organization announced last February that Holmgren would coach only through the '08 season and then be replaced by current assistant head coach/secondary Jimmy Mora that there was potential for awkwardness, especially if the team started slowly. Now I wonder if the players will start to tune out Holmgren the way lawmakers – well, make that U.S. citizens – have ceased paying attention to his fellow lame duck in the Oval Office.
• For suspended stars Plaxico Burress and Tommie Harris, Sunday was an unsettling reminder that few NFL players are truly indispensable. True, the level of competition factored into the outcomes, but the Giants (523 total yards) and Bears (185 total yards allowed in a 34-7 pummeling of the Lions) managed to make a point about accountability without suffering any collateral damage. After watching Domenick Hixon catch four passes for 102 yards and a touchdown (in less than a half's worth of work) and Sinorice Moss snag two TDs, Burress might think twice about blowing off treatment or a meeting. The same goes for Harris, a dominant defensive tackle who, like Burress, pushed his employers to act not long after signing a lucrative contract extension.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How, amid all the recent rhetoric about earmarks, the revised economic bailout bill (which both presidential candidates helped push through) could possibly contain $140 billion in "pork." In these trying times should this be considered pretty far from kosher?
2. Terrell Owens' postgame attire. Is it just me, or did it look like T.O. snuck into one of his neighbors' garages, snagged an old outdoor tablecloth and turned it into a shirt?
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Alright, Chargers, I am officially putting you on notice. As my preseason Super Bowl pick, you are in danger of causing me great public embarrassment. And we cannot have that. Look, I realize that even after Sunday's lightweight effort in Miami you are 2-3 – the same record you were at this point last year, when you roared back to reach the AFC Championship game before losing to the Patriots. Having witnessed your 39-38 defeat in Denver last month, I am also well aware that you are one Ed Hochuli whistle-swallow from being 3-2. I know Shawne Merriman is out for the year and Stephen Cooper missed the first four games and LT had a messed-up toe. The season is young, and a quick and dramatic turnaround is certainly feasible. But here's the problem: I worry that, because you fought your way out of a hole last year, you're sitting there thinking in the back of your minds, "No problem. We can do it again. Let's just turn it on when we need to." And football doesn't work that way. It requires a maniacal, illogical and collective commitment to pushing the body's physical limits; anything short of that will inevitably be exposed. Last year, with LT providing the emotional impetus, all of you joined together to plow through adversity and ward off an ugly collapse that many of us were sure was coming. That took a lot of defiant ferocity and mental energy, and it's not like you can close your eyes and replicate it and casually reboot the program. To get out of this hole, you will have to find a way to bring some meaning and urgency to this particular season, and I suggest you do it, like, now. Oh, and by the way, the Patriots are coming to town Sunday night. Without Tom Brady. If you can't beat New England without its superstar, your self-image will likely take an irrevocable hit.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"What up Silver … 5-0 crazy!"
– Text Sunday night from Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck
"Asu blows talk to me when u smell a rose bowl"
– Text Sunday afternoon from cbssportsline columnist and proud Arizona State alum Pete Prisco, responding to my text pointing out that the Sun Devils were defeated by the Golden Bears the previous afternoon. (I had no comeback.)