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Fire Me Boy!
08-20-2005, 01:07 AM

Kurt the Cardinal

Warner believes Arizona is the perfect place to show he still has Super Bowl talent


The Kansas City Star

Before taking a chance and signing Kurt Warner, the Arizona Cardinals evaluated each and every one of the 277 passes he threw last season.

That’s every post pattern, out pattern, crossing pattern and corner route.

And they came away convinced that Warner, who has finished each of the last two seasons as a backup to younger quarterbacks, still had the arm strength and accuracy that made him one of the most brilliant passers in NFL history before a succession of shoulder, hand and finger injuries — plus a frightening concussion — led to his demise in St. Louis.

“Kurt Warner is a perfect fit for the Arizona Cardinals,” concluded Cardinals offensive coordinator Keith Rowen, a former Chiefs assistant. “There’s nothing to indicate he won’t play at a high level. Just watch him…”

At 7:30 tonight in an exhibition game against the Chiefs, a capacity crowd at Arrowhead Stadium will get their first glimpse of Warner — though he will look odd in the Cardinals’ garish new red and white uniforms.

After a one-year stopover with the New York Giants last season, Warner is with his third team in three years, quite a comedown for a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player who led the Rams to two Super Bowls during 1999-2001. He lost his job to Marc Bulger and became a salary cap casualty in St. Louis.

“You never want to be a guy who bounces around from team to team after being in a situation where I expected to spend my career in St. Louis,” said Warner, 34. “It’s exciting to be in a position where I have an opportunity to write my own future.”

In his Arizona debut last week, Warner completed 14 of 19 passes to six different receivers for 151 yards and a touchdown as the Cardinals beat Dallas 13-11. He marched the Cardinals on an 85-yard scoring drive by completing five of six passes, capped by a 31-yard touchdown pass across the middle to Larry Fitzgerald.

“I can’t see why if he has the right supporting cast and the right scheme he can’t be everything he was,” said Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, who was Warner’s head coach during the 1999 championship season in St. Louis. “Look what he did the other day in his first game with a brand-new scheme. I don’t think he has any limitations. Very few outstanding quarterbacks don’t have a supporting cast.”

Chiefs cornerback Dexter McCleon, a teammate of Warner’s during the Super Bowl years in St. Louis, was impressed while watching a telecast of that game.

“He looks to me like a totally different player this year with the Cardinals than he was last year with the Giants,” McCleon said. “He’s more in his comfort zone. That offense allows him to be himself, as opposed to the offense he was in with the Giants. With the talent he has in Arizona, he looks like the old Kurt again.”

Actually, Warner was a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year honors last season as he led the Giants to a 5-2 start. But after two consecutive losses by a total of 10 points, Giants coach Tom Coughlin replaced Warner with rookie Eli Manning, the No. l pick in the draft.

Warner knew Manning would eventually replace him as the Giants quarterback of the future, but not as long as he kept the team in the playoff hunt. The Giants went 0-6 with Manning at quarterback before winning the season finale. His passer rating was 55.4 compared with Warner’s 86.5.

Warner is still somewhat bitter about his season in New York.

“Based on the way I played and how the team played when I was in there, yeah, I feel I was shortchanged to a degree,” he said. “If it was a bottom line of who’s the best player on the field … but fair or unfair, I understood the situation going in and why they made the change. I didn’t necessarily agree with it or like it, but it was something I knew was a possibility, and I had to deal with it.”

So Warner left New York and signed a one-year, $4 million contract with Arizona and a chance to play in a quarterback-friendly offense for coach Dennis Green, who had success with veteran quarterbacks Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon and Jeff George at Minnesota.

“If you want to be noted for something, I want to be noted as a guy who finds players who still got it (when) others think they don’t,” Green said.

Warner, who is still the NFL’s all-time leader in career completion percentage (65.9) and second in passer rating (95.7), has the benefit of throwing to three of the league’s most talented young receivers in former first-round picks Fitzgerald (2004) and Bryant Johnson (2003), and Anquan Boldin, a 2003 Pro Bowl starter. He also has a promising young running back in J.J. Arrington, the Cards’ second-round pick from California.

“Here’s an opportunity where there’s no one waiting in the wings, and nothing that says this can only be a one-year or two-year thing,” Warner said. “There’s an opportunity for me to play out my career in Arizona. To me, that’s exciting. I’m a guy who is as loyal as they get and would love to finish my career with this team and try to win some championships.”

Championships? Has the Arizona heat gotten to Warner? The Cardinals haven’t won an NFL championship in 57 years, the longest drought in the NFL, when the franchise was based in Chicago. Since 1947, the franchise has qualified for the playoffs five times, winning one postseason game, in 1998.

But Warner remembers what happened in St. Louis, when the Rams had the league’s poorest record in the 1990s, before he stepped in for an injured Trent Green in 1999 and emerged from grocery store stock boy to Super Bowl hero. He threw for 4,353 yards and led the league with 41 touchdown passes and a 65.1 completion percentage as the Greatest Show on Turf reversed the culture of losing football in St. Louis — a mentality created by the St. Louis Cardinals before their move to Arizona.

“It’s a big similarity to what we started with in St. Louis,” Warner said. “There was a stigma around the league and even in those respective cities that the team doesn’t know how to win, and you don’t come in with high expectations.

“You hear the term, ‘Same old Rams’ … ‘Same old Cardinals.’ … It’s a huge challenge. Losing breeds losing, winning breeds winning. There is a lot of work to be done in the organization from the top all the way down in convincing everyone in the organization what it means to be successful and how to be successful year in and year out.”

Clearly, the Cardinals have a chance at contending this season in a weak NFC West in which Seattle, 9-7, was the only team in the division with a winning record last year. And the Seahawks lost to St. Louis, 8-8, in all three meetings, including a playoff game.

“It’s going to be strange playing against those guys twice a year,” Warner said of the Rams. “It’s still sometimes amazing to me that I’m not still playing and finishing my career in St. Louis with the way things started.

“But I’m not dwelling on the past. What we had there was awesome and special and will never be forgotten. But right now, it’s a new chapter, it’s a new time, and hopefully we have a chance to do some of the things in Arizona we did there and generate the same kind of atmosphere.”

Warner won’t have to wait long to find out how the Cardinals will measure up against the Rams. In a cruel twist, the NFL has Warner facing his former teams in the first two weeks of the regular season — at the Giants on Sept. 11, and at home against St. Louis on Sept. 18.

“I’m sure that wasn’t a coincidence,” Warner said, laughing.