Kurt Warner bloomed in the desert

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He was history. He was so 2001. All Kurt Warner had left was his wing and his prayer, and NFL types sincerely doubted about the former.

The St. Louis Rams he guided to two Super Bowls summarily released him after one 2003 start. The New York Giants gave him nine starts the next fall, then sent him walking, too. Young guns replaced him: Marc Bulger of Central Catholic High School and West Virginia, and Eli Manning. The conductor of the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf was reduced to passing the baton. A seat-warmer, he called himself.

He fell into the Black Hole, his description for how the rest of professional football viewed the wayward franchise still drifting in the desert, the Arizona Cardinals.

Next the NFL's losingest franchise benched him, first for a dude named Josh McCown, then for another young gun, Matt Leinart, the hotshot No. 1 pick with the hot-tub-party good looks. Six years of spiraling downward landed at the bottom of the Hole with a thunk.

"The hardest time was obviously the last time I was benched here in Arizona," Warner, 37, but with far more miles on the odometer, recounted this week. "I really just felt like this was going to be the last place, at my age, at this stage of my career ..."

The last place became the last stand. On the Friday before this season's opener, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt spent that night weighing his options. Warner or Leinart? Leinart or Warner? He chose the veteran because he sought a fast start, and "we did exactly that with Kurt," Whisenhunt said.

Nineteen games of spiraling upward landed at the mountaintop with a whoosh.

Once again, Warner is a Super Bowl starter, a Pro Bowler, a man on a podium with an audience before him. It's 1999 all over. It's 2001 all over. He turned back the clock so well, these Cardinals (12-7) have: won more playoff games in one month than in their 89 previous years; reached their first league championship game in 60 years; and reached their first Super Bowl. Father Time Warner, indeed.

Only one other quarterback in the Super Bowl's XLIII years has directed two different teams to that mountaintop, Craig Morton of Dallas (V) and Denver (XII).

Whatever happens tonight against the Steelers (14-4) in Raymond James Stadium almost seems irrelevant to Warner's revival, which almost certainly would have upstaged Chad Pennington's comeback player of the year win if voting waited through the postseason.

This former Iowa Barnstormer of the Arena Football League, this come-from-nowhere man who stocked shelves at the Cedar Falls, Iowa, Hy-Vee grocery store and toiled abroad in NFL Europe's Amsterdam, this backup to such St. Louis luminaries as Tony Banks, Steve Bono and Trent Green -- he was the turn-of-the-century's original comeback kid. As a graying vet seven years later, he came back yet again.

"I'm sure people asked, 'Why did this guy get released by St. Louis? He led them to two Super Bowls. He won two MVPs. ... Something must be wrong,'" Warner said this week. "The perception around the league about me was, 'There was no more football left in him ...' So that's been one of the neat parts of the story: [The Cardinals] took a chance, I took a chance, and, together, we've made something special happen."

Warner got them a fast start, all right: 7-3 overall. They throttled Buffalo after losing both ends of an East Coast doubleheader where they stayed in suburban Washington, D.C., between losses to the Washington Redskins and New York Jets. He kept them in a critical Dallas game they won in overtime. After a late 1-4 tailspin, Warner threw four touchdowns to beat Seattle, and the Cardinals have sailed through the postseason.

In the postseason, he has reverted to Mr. January. He passed for 271 yards and two touchdowns in the wild-card triumph against Atlanta. He passed for 220 yards and two more touchdowns in a divisional defeat of host Carolina. He passed for 279 yards and four scores -- three in the first half and the other on a 14-play, 72-yard, winning drive late in the fourth quarter -- for an NFC championship victory against Philadelphia. That made him 61 of 92 for 770 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions in the postseason (where he has an 8-2 career record), after a regular season in which he threw for 4,582 yards, 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

Nothing is wrong. There is more football in him, after all.

Warner ranks second all-time in career completion percentage (behind only Pennington) and third in career passer rating (behind Steve Young and Peyton Manning). He ranks in the top five in most every other significant passing category except total yards (38th), mostly due to that seven-year stretch without starting as often as in his three best Rams seasons and his past 31 consecutive starts. He has three Super Bowl visits to go with the two MVPs now.

"I told him after the NFC championship that I just want a ticket to Canton, Ohio, when he gets in," Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "What else does he have to do? He's a Hall of Famer, period."

"You guys love to remind everybody our age every year after 30," defensive tackle Bryan Robinson, 34, barked at the media last week. "At this stage in your career, you don't know how much time you have left. Kurt Warner will be the first guy to tell you that you don't know."

When asked the Monday morning after the NFC championship how much longer he planned to play, Warner never hesitated: "At least two more weeks."

Retire? Not when he apparently has solved two of the biggest bugaboos throughout his career: He fumbles less, having worked on ball security; and he no longer is a statue in the pocket, having improved his movement. Not when the Cardinals' rising in Phoenix reminds him of St. Louis' resuscitation.

"It's fun to see guys playing above expectations, going out every week, believing in one another, rallying around one another ... even when nobody else believes in you," Warner said. "I remember that in St. Louis. Nobody believed we could be anything, and it was fun to make that run and exceed expectations. It's been just as fun this year."

Warner -- a devout fellow, a man who asks his seven children to quietly pick another restaurant table for the family to share their good fortune by picking up a stranger's tab -- considers his resurgence a sign for others.

"I think so much of my life is built on hope, and it's built on faith, and it's built on the idea that no matter what the situation is, anything is possible," Warner said. "I think sometimes it's easy to say those things, and some of those things sound like cliches, but what it's done for me is show me that is the case."

"When you have a guy that is anointed your quarterback," cornerback Roderick Hood added, "he makes people believe."

Believe it or not, he led these Cardinals to the Super Bowl from the Black Hole.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com .


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