Warner's amazing rebirth a Super tale
Many factors combine to foster QB's return from mediocrity to big stage
by Gregg Rosenthal, NBCSports.com
TAMPA, Fla. - Kurt Warner already did the rags-to-riches story. He's done the rise from obscurity to dominance in the blink of an eye before. What he's doing for an encore with the Arizona Cardinals is far more rare; rising again, but from the inevitable decline of old age. Rising from mediocrity.
"Anytime a veteran player has had great success and then not had it, it's always something you admire, to see him come back to that level again," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Kurt has never been afraid to work."
Only one other quarterback has taken two teams to the Super Bowl: Craig Morton. The main reason for that bit of trivia is that teams won't give up on a Super Bowl quarterback until they are absolutely sure he is done. Two teams were sure Warner was done: the Rams and the Giants.
Don't forget the Cardinals benched Warner repeatedly over the past four seasons. While healthy, Warner once sat behind the immortal Josh McCown. To start the 2006 season, Warner fumbled 11 times and threw five interceptions in a four-game span before getting benched for Matt Leinart. Whisenhunt stuck with Leinart to open the 2007 season, and only fully committed to Warner when Leinart suffered a broken collarbone.
Warner almost didn't even get a chance to pilot this team. Eight days before the season, after Leinart imploded during an exhibition game, Whisenhunt says he "stayed up all night" before settling on Warner as his starter. In return, Warner gave his coach his first 16-game season since 2001 - the last time he was in the Super Bowl.
It's not just amazing that Warner has bounced back; it's how far. Warner finished second in the NFL in passing yards, third in passer rating, and third in touchdowns thrown. He was an MVP favorite until Arizona's late regular-season swoon, and has played his best football in the playoffs, with eight touchdowns and two picks. Warner's superlative effort now places him back in the Super Bowl, where he is this week's biggest attraction and best story.
Sometimes Warner the man can overshadow Warner the player. No player has attracted a larger media throng the first few days, but no one asks about what he does on the field. Instead, we are fascinated with his leadership ability, his experience, his faith, his eerie calm and his wife. They are all worthy subjects because Warner is genuinely a good guy, but his biography shouldn't overwhelm the primary reason we care: Kurt Warner is a player. He's got skills. Ask someone what makes Warner so great, and you will get a variety of answers.
The ability to accurately hit your target is the most important and underrated skill a quarterback can possess. It might be Warner's defining trait.
Drew Brees, a fellow Pro Bowler, is an unabashed Warner fan. "He's very accurate. He's got great anticipation."
Completion percentage is great, but Warner also throws the ball to the right spot to allow his playmakers to run wild. Many of Anquan Boldin's big plays are passes near the line of scrimmage where Warner hits him in perfect stride. It's not always the biggest arm that wins, but the one that throws a catchable a ball. Warner's receivers appreciate it.
"He has a real good touch," wideout Onrea Jones said. "He puts passes into places where you want to catch it. If a defender is in front of you, he puts it behind to protect you."
Watch enough Cardinals tapes, and you'll see one play repeat itself: Warner gets hammered by an on-rushing defender and still completes the pass. Most aging quarterbacks begin to "see the pass rush" after they have been hit too much. They lower their eyes to see where the next collision is coming from rather than keeping their eyes down field. Warner never takes his eyes off his receivers.
"He's got such great toughness," Brees said. "He just stands in the pocket and delivers the football, no matter what is around him."
When Warner has struggled in his career, this ability has eluded him. He's occasionally appeared hesitant, which leads to big hits and fumbles. Warner has fumbled more than any other player in the past three seasons, but he's yet to lose a fumble in the postseason.
It's tough to pinpoint why Warner has improved so much this season in delivering while taking the big hit. It's not like his offensive line is playing much better. Warner gets hit as much as he ever does. He just gets rid of the ball quicker.
"He gets rid of the ball so fast," Steelers outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley said Tuesday.
Long-time Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith backed Woodley up.
"He doesn't hold on to it, how quick he gets rid of the ball sets him apart," Smith said.
Combine that with three threats at the wide receiver position, and we have a tough challenge in front of us."
Warner's decisiveness comes from his confidence in his receivers. Larry Fitzgerald and Boldin inevitably make Warner look good. But just as important is Warner's ability to know when the blitz is coming, and where it is coming from.
Smarts and anticipation
"He's a smart guy, first and foremost," Smith said. "So he knows where to go with the ball."
Warner has always been a bright player, but his ability to dissect opposing defenses has improved with age. Many quarterbacks, such as Ben Roethlisberger, improvise as the play develops because they don't know what's coming. Warner sees the play happen before he takes the snap.
"He breaks down defenses. He knows what coverage you're in. He knows who's open. When you have a smart quarterback like that, it's hard to stop him," Woodley said, shaking his head.
Teammates run into the same problems in practice. Cardinals safety Matt Ware says Warner's mind makes the difference. "It seems like he knows what you're doing before you know what you're doing. He knows where you're going to be."
Perhaps more than any team, the Steelers have an ability to catch opposing quarterbacks by surprise. That is going to be very difficult to do against Warner. Steelers coordinator Dick Lebeau's famous zone-blitz scheme fundamentally puts pressure on one side of the defense, but Warner has seen it all before. Lebeau knows it will be difficult to unnerve Warner.
"You don't play in the league as long as he's played and have the success that he's had without being able to handle anything the defense does," Lebeau said.
That doesn't mean Lebeau will stop trying to force a mistake. "Our feeling is that offenses in general don't play quite as well against pressure, so we'll be trying to search for a way to do that."
The Eagles also run a creative blitzing scheme, but Warner stymied it in the NFC championship game. They kept sending multiple blitzers to one side, but Warner calmly released the ball to the open hole in the defense. Philadelphia didn't find success until they adjusted at halftime. By then, it was too late.
"I think if you had to say one thing that separates him, he's got unbelievable vision and anticipation," Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley said Tuesday.
That anticipation doesn't come by accident.
Every Arizona player and coach that spoke about Warner repeated one thing. No one works harder. No one watches more film, and no one is more prepared.
Despite being a former MVP, Warner knew before this season that he must get better to survive. Most players of his age and stature are just trying to hold on to their old skill set, but Warner set out to find new skills. Whisenhunt believes that has been the key to his renaissance.
"Kurt, to his credit, worked very hard on some of the things that we asked him to do: ball security, moving in the pocket, decisions on his reads. I think a great deal of the success he's had is because of that work he's put in. Kurt has never been afraid to work."
Warner's work has paid off with one more unlikely trip to the Super Bowl, reviving his second moribund franchise of the past decade. The future is uncertain. Warner is a free agent after the season, and even Cardinals GM Rod Graves admits that Leinart will take over the team ... eventually.
Sunday is Warner's moment. It's his chance to topple a historically good defense, to make this incredible chapter of his story sublime.
"The dream of this game is, when I walk away, that everybody that played with me, or in the organizations that I was with say, ‘We were a better team, we were a better organization, I'm a better player because I was around that guy.' That's what I want my legacy to be." Warner said Tuesday.
Warner the man deserves to be celebrated, no doubt. But I'll remember Warner's play on the field above all: decisive, tough, accurate, and smart as hell. I'll remember the season, long after most gave up on him, when Warner led the Arizona freaking Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
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