- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kurt Warner’s path to pro football glory has always been the Road Not Taken. While other quarterbacks were making names for themselves in big-time college programs, Warner was whizzing passes in relative anonymity for the Northern Iowa Panthers. While other QBs were bagging rich contracts and being groomed to be NFL starters, Warner was bagging groceries and slugging it out in Arena ball and NFL Europe - just to get a shot in the league.

When Warner finally did hit it big with the Rams at the end of the ‘90s, his career took another unusual turn. He pretty much disappeared for five seasons - The Lost Years. Battered physically - and, perhaps, psychologically - because of a deteriorating offensive line, he was considered finished as a frontline player in many quarters.

He started for the Giants for a while in 2004, but then the offense was turned over to first-pick-in-the-draft Eli Manning. Much the same thing happened in Arizona two years later with another hotshot rookie, Matt Leinart. Was this his fate, he wondered - to finish his career as a warmup act for the next generation of quarterbacks? Or was something else in store for him, something even more improbable than what had gone on before?

“When I got released by St. Louis,” he said Tuesday, the sun shining down on him at Raymond James Stadium, “people figured there must be something that’s not right [with him]. I’d been to two Super Bowls, won two MVPs… why would they let this guy go? There must be something he can’t do anymore.”

Yeah, like win. Warner lost his last eight starts with the Rams, beginning with the Super Bowl against the Patriots, and was throwing many more interceptions than touchdown passes. A concussion - an injury that had curtailed the careers of Troy Aikman, Steve Young and other QBs - had also set him back. So much so that the greatness of his first few seasons, when he evoked memories of Dan Marino with his quick release and amazing accuracy, began to seem almost like a mirage.

“This league is so much about perception,” he said, “and I understand that. But I never felt the physical part of my game had ever disappeared. The question I had was: Would I ever get the opportunity to display it again? Would I ever get another chance to be a starter and do the things I did in St. Louis?”

Looking back now, from the vantage point of Super Bowl XLIII, you say, “Of course he would - because he’s Kurt Warner.” What other quarterback would resurface at the age of 37 to brush Heisman Trophy glamorpuss Leinart aside and lead the Cardinals out of the desert to their first Super Bowl - all while having a Pro Bowl season? There’s no QB like him - not now, not ever.

“Not to my memory,” said Cards general manager Rod Graves, who began threading projectors 28 seasons ago and is the son of an NFL scout. “I’m not sure even Sonny Jurgensen or Billy Kilmer ever experienced something like this in their careers.”

Not nearly, though Kilmer is an interesting name to bring up. He, too, came off the scrap heap to take a team (the ‘72 Redskins) to the Super Bowl at a somewhat advanced age (33). But Billy didn’t wait until he was 28 to get his Big Chance, and he didn’t enjoy the instant, vertigo-inducing fame Warner did.

That waiting served Warner well in recent years as he fought to get back on the field. As he puts it, “If you’re patient, something good can happen. I learned that at a very early age. Maybe it’s because of the trials, the travels it took to get me to this point in my career. You try not to get too low when things aren’t going well or too high when they’re going great.”

Then again, maybe it’s just his mental makeup. That’s what Graves thinks. “You can’t count him out,” he said. “He’s just a tremendous character guy and a great competitor. He just will not quit, and that’s a tremendous example to our younger players.”

Still, Warner feared the league might have quit on him. Indeed, he sensed the Cardinals “didn’t have high expectations” when he signed as a free agent in ‘05. And even he, truth be known, never envisioned sitting at a podium at the Super Bowl again, fielding questions about life, football and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I’m a man of pretty strong faith,” he said, “so I believe a lot of things are possible. But when I left New York, I can’t say I thought something like this was possible. I just wanted another chance to compete.”

He got that chance because the Cardinals decided that, to get anywhere as an organization, they couldn’t let “the draft or money dictate who was going to start,” Graves said. They had to play their best players, even if it meant - in the case of Warner - making the Quarterback of the Future cool his cleats on the sideline.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt was certainly amenable. He had been with the Steelers a few years earlier when Bill Cowher handed the QB job in midseason to journeyman Tommy Maddox - and Maddox guided the team to the playoffs. With Whisenhunt, as with Cowher, it’s all about winning.

Had the Cards operated otherwise, they wouldn’t be in Tampa - and folks wouldn’t be debating whether Warner, with his latest exploits, has earned a spot in the Hall of Fame. Once again, he finds himself surrounded by quality receivers; in St. Louis, he had Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Ricky Proehl, and in Arizona he has Pro Bowlers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin - plus Steve Breaston, another 1,000-yard wideout.

The only thing that’s missing, and it’s no small thing, is a running back like Marshall Faulk. Once upon a time, Edgerrin James was a reasonable facsimile, but now he’s just Option C or D. Nevertheless, Warner has enough weapons - and presumably enough life in that right arm of his - to continue putting up Canton-worthy numbers for another season or so.

And that - coupled with quarterbacking two down-on-their-luck franchises to the Super Bowl - might be enough to get him in the Hall. Put it this way: His finger is on the doorbell. And if the Cardinals pull another upset Sunday… or is that too much to ask even of one-of-a-kind Kurt Warner?

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