Leaders inspire. Few did it as brilliantly as Kurt Warner, who announced his retirement from football earlier this month. Field generals bring a lifetime of experience into the huddle with them. The great ones channel these experiences and calmly tell teammates the play call. Their presence alone speaks volumes. Others follow their lead on the march towards victory. On field play make legacies; Warner created one of the most memorable ones in professional football history. When he was on, no quarterback ever matched his high level of play; but more importantly, no quarterback ever changed the fortunes of two different, floundering franchises more than Warner. His culture changing legacy, more than anything else, will cement his place among the pantheon of greats enshrined in Canton.
Adversity reveals character. Warner had more integrity in his pinky finger than most athletes have in their entire bodies. How else can you explain a man who toiled in football oblivion for most of his twenties? Warner shuffled about throughout the 1990s. He made a training camp appearance in Green Bay as an undrafted free agent in 1994, served as a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater, and finally found professional success playing arena football in Iowa. Playing in minor league football failed to provide Warner financial support to provide for his family. So, he earned additional income in the off-season by working at a Hy-Vee grocery store. Through all these trying times, Warner believed he would make it. His faith allowed him to look at the big picture. He worked hard, prepared diligently, and waited for an opportunity to present itself. He let God do the rest.
The St. Louis Rams gave Warner his break in 1998 when the team offered him a contract. The quarterback spent the 1998 season in NFL Europe, a developmental league, and hoped that Warner might help the team down the road as a backup quarterback. While Warner adjusted to life as a member of the Amsterdam Admirals, the Rams began a rebuilding effort aimed at lifting a franchise known as a perennial loser throughout the 1990s.
Once a glamour team located in Los Angeles, the Rams had fallen on hard times. This was a once proud franchise; it gave Pete Rozelle, the legendary NFL commissioner, his first job in professional football. All time greats such as Deacon Jones (the fearsome defensive end of the 1960s) and Eric Dickerson (who still holds the individual season rushing record with 2106 yards) sported the Rams uniform. The team had become remarkably unfashionable in recent years. In 1995, it relocated to St. Louis and continued its losing ways. But, the NFL rewards losers with top draft picks. Rebuilding efforts occur quickly. The Rams began theirs in 1997 by hiring Dick Vermeil as head coach. Vermeil, the UCLA coaching legend, had been out of football for over a decade after burning out as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. An energetic Vermeil arrived in St. Louis and provided stability for a lagging franchise. In 1998, the team’s personnel department began assembling talent aimed at utilizing speed and capitalizing on their indoor home at the Edward James Dome. Rams management traded away draft picks to Indianapolis to secure Marshall Faulk, the electric running back. They assembled a potent receiving corps led by Isaac Bruce. Orlando Pace, the team’s top draft pick in 1997, solidified the offensive line and had become an All Pro at the left tackle position. The team fielded potent offensive talent with average man behind center. They brought in a quarterback in 1999 who they believed would make their offense electric.
Trent Green arrived in St. Louis as a free agent that year. Rams fans hoped he would lead the team to a winning season. After all, it had been a decade since the team had a winning record. St. Louis fans hadn’t seen a winning football team in ages. High expectations seemed plausible with Vermeil at the helm and an offense full of promise. This hope didn’t make it through the pre-season. Green injured himself in one of these warm-up affairs and was lost for the season. Fans believed this was another lost year. Vermeil called a press conference. He memorably said: “We’re going to rally around Kurt Warner.”
“Who?” Most people said to themselves.
Warner came to St. Louis that year as the backup quarterback. He had spent years preparing for this moment. At 27, he knew time was running out. He needed to capitalize on an opportunity. Green’s injury provided that chance; Warner stepped up to the plate and answered the challenge. He exploded out of the gates to become the best story of the NFL season. Few expected the Rams to win with a backup quarterback. Warner did more than win, he led an offense that shattered record books and became known as “The Greatest Show On Turf.” The team scored more than 500 points—beginning a run of three straight seasons of unparalleled scoring. That season, he passed for 4,353 yards, threw for 41 touchdown passes, and completed over 65% of his balls. The Rams rolled through the NFC West and plowed through their playoff competition to reach the Super Bowl. There, Warner continued the party by throwing for a Super Bowl record 414 yards and two touchdowns on his way to leading the franchise to a memorable 23-16 win over the Tennessee Titans. The performance earned Warner Super Bowl MVP honors to go along with his regular season MVP award.
The Rams became an NFL power the next two years. The team continued its offensive prowess the next year and racked up staggering numbers. A playoff loss to New Orleans shocked football fans. Warner bounced back from this disappointment with a stellar 2001 season. Warner again led the Rams to a Super Bowl that year. Along the way, he threw for an astronomical 4,830 yards and 36 touchdowns. The team entered the Super Bowl as heavy favorites over the New England Patriots. But, Bill Belicheck kept the Rams at bay with a magnificent coaching performance. Warner still excelled; he threw for 365 yards and a touchdown while also rushing a ball into the end zone. But that day, an era ended. The Patriots knocked out the heavy favorites and began their own dynasty.
2002-2004 were lost years for Kurt Warner. He began the 2002 season poorly and broke a finger in his throwing hand just a few games into the campaign. Injuries kept him out most of the season. He came back and started two games at the end of the year. But, he no longer threw the ball consistently and suffered two defeats. The next year, Marc Bulger replaced him as starting quarterback. The team released Warner in June 2004; a humbled quarterback signed a two year deal with New York and joined the Giants hoping to start the season and mentor a newly drafted Eli Manning. The Giants played well for the first few games but Warner struggled. The trademark zip of his passes disappeared in the howling winds of the Meadowlands. Nine games into his tenure, Manning made his first start. The Giants never looked back, despite Manning’s paltry won-loss record.
These were dark days for Warner. His career appeared over. Many wondered if the music that marked Warner’s brilliant St. Louis career had faded for good. But, resilient champions pull themselves off the mat and live to fight another day. The Arizona Cardinals needed a veteran quarterback and offered Warner a contract. The aging warrior moved to the desert hoping to resurrect the fortunes of a sad franchise.
A renaissance occurred in Phoenix. Both the Cardinals and Warner were all the better for it. The Cardinals had a similar situation to the one Warner encountered six years before in St. Louis. A floundering franchise had drafted well and accumulated offensive firepower. It needed a quarterback to lead them to victory; Kurt Warner proved to be their savior. But this did not happen overnight. For two plus seasons, Warner struggled to regain his form. Injuries continued haunting him. He split time with others, first with Josh McCown and later with former USC star Matt Leinart. But neither of these rivals played well enough to secure the starting position. In 2007, Warner grabbed the starting spot and held onto it for good. He caught lightning in a bottle. Overnight, the Cardinals became an offensive force. Warner threw for 27 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards. The Cardinals, for the first time in franchise history, appeared to be a legitimate threat.
Arizona had stability at the quarterback position but many had high hopes for former No. 1 quarterback pick, Matt Leinart. The conventional wisdom was that Warner’s era, despite his great 2007 effort, had passed and Leinart would lead the team forward. When second year coach Ken Whisenhunt offered Warner a chance to compete for the job, many believed it was little more than a show trial with a pre-determined winner in Leinart.
Whisenhunt wasn’t most people. He certainly didn’t fit the mold of an Arizona Cardinal. The franchise was the worst franchise in NFL history for a reason. They often played marquee players even when the team would be better off with others on the field. Whisenhunt came from Pittsburgh, a franchise viewed as the most successful in NFL history. He just wanted the best player, not the flashiest guy, to lead his team on the field. Thus, he meant what he said when he offered Warner a chance to win the starting job.
Warner impressed his coaches that offseason and earned the starting spot in August 2008. He did not disappoint. The Cardinals electrified the NFC that year. Warner put up huge numbers and led the team into the playoffs. Few expected much from the team. After all, the Cardinals had no history of playoff success. Furthermore, the team had suffered humiliating defeats on the road that year. They routinely withered against elite competition.
No one in the locker room listened to conventional wisdom. The team had embraced the quiet confidence of its starting quarterback. The playoffs turned into a microcosm of Warner’s career. When he was hot, no quarterback rivaled his game. The team began a playoff march that shocked a nation. This time, Larry Fitzgerald, the All Pro wide receiver put up a series of performances that sizzled as much as Warner’s did.
The Cardinals collected their first playoff win against the Atlanta Falcons. This was the franchise’s first home playoff win since 1947. Warner simply overmatched the firepower of Falcons’ rookie sensation Matt Ryan. The next week, the team headed to Charlotte where they thrashed the turnover plagued Panthers. The team returned to Phoenix where they would host the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game. Many expected Donovan McNabb to lead the Eagles to victory; many still doubted the resilient Cardinals and their formidable offense.
Warner and Fitzgerald blew the Eagles off the field in the first half of that game. The standout receiver grabbed three touchdown passes in the first half. Warner threw another in the second to finish the game with four TDs and no interceptions. The Cardinals, for the first time in franchise history, would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XLIII was a classic. A great back and forth between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals broke out. Both quarterbacks played brilliantly. Down late, the Cardinals got the ball back with minutes to go. Warner found Fitzgerald over the middle for a quick strike. This was the second time the two connected during the game. The Cardinals retook the lead 23-20 with just under three minutes to play. But, Ben Roethlisberger orchestrated a drive for the ages which culminated in an unbelievable throw to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone. Ultimate glory eluded the franchise. Warner shone once again, even in defeat.
Many expected the Cardinals to miss the playoffs in 2009 like so many Super Bowl losers had before them. But, the team culture changed. The new Cardinals embraced their winning fortunes and became a team to be reckoned with. They now flourished on the road and, amazingly, became a stronger team away from home than they were at the friendly confines of University of Phoenix Stadium. They dominated in cold weather conditions at Soldier Field and Giants Stadium, a marked contrast from the season before, on their way to capturing a wild card berth.
The 2009 NFC Wild Card game between the Green Bay Packers and the Arizona Cardinals may be the most explosive offensive performance in NFL playoff history. Neither side could slow the other down. Warner played brilliantly. Fifty years from now, when youngsters ask about the greatness of Kurt Warner, one just needs to view this tape. He played quarterback as well as any man ever has: five TDs, 29-33 passing, 379 yards, an absolute virtuoso performance.
That is my lasting image of Kurt Warner. A week later, he suffered a concussion in a road loss to New Orleans. Three weeks after that, he called it a career. But, oh what brilliant one it was.
“Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away.” Douglas MacArthur offered that axiom sixty years ago. The old general inspired thousands of men in WW II. Kurt Warner did a similar thing on a football field. MacArthur’s sentiments perfectly describe the career of Kurt Warner. He played masterfully for six seasons. He put up unbelievable numbers. But most importantly, he led men and changed cultures. He inherited teams needing direction and took them to unimaginable heights. That is something few men do. For that, we will never forget his career.