Living for Today is the NFL Way
By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com
They find themselves in glorified NFL temp jobs, surviving the collapsing pocket of time and odds to stand strong in the football season. Vinny Testaverde and Kurt Warner are gentlemen mercenaries until those golden armed rookies can take over as quarterbacks for two of the sport's most demanding coaches. For a decade, it could be Eli Manning vs. Drew Henson. For now, they'll wear baseball caps and clutch clipboards Sunday at Texas Stadium.
The ability to pass downfield has helped resurrect Vinny Testaverde's career with the Cowboys.
To think that Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin would just dismiss the 2004 seasons to let young quarterbacks learn on the job would be failing to understand the psyches of the coaches and state of the league. There are few free seasons in the league these days, and assuredly, there are none with the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.
Before the season, the biggest questions hanging over these two franchises were simple: Did a 40-year-old Testavarde and a broken down ex-MVP Warner have enough left to bridge the Cowboys and Giants to the peach-fuzzed futures of the franchises?
So sure, the strangest thing has happened. They haven't just been good, but they've been terrific. Suddenly, this is an important game to stay in the NFC East race for the Cowboys and Giants, an acid test for the two teams and two quarterbacks. Football is a funny game this way, because sometimes you can never tell which old quarterback is stepping into the second -- even third -- act of his football career.
Sometimes, it takes two great minds, Parcells and Coughlin, to find the right system to make them work again. Sometimes, you can still end up with the kinds of surprising seasons that Testaverde and Warner have delivered so far.
Together, the two quarterbacks have been able to sell themselves as leaders to teammates. What they've done has been to guarantee a move to the younger arms would be seen as surrender in those locker rooms. As long as they're winning, Parcells and Coughlin must be committed to staying the course. For Parcells, Testavarde could be his saving grace to reaching the playoffs. He isn't in Dallas for the long-run, the way Coughlin appears to be with the Giants. Parcells will possibly never make it to the best days of Henson's pro career, so perhaps he's most willing to ride it out with the last days of Testaverde's.
The Cowboys talk about Testavarde's understanding of Parcells, his ability to bring calm and assurance when the cantankerous coach is bringing the heat on them. Testaverde isn't a reclamation project, but freed of the ill-fitting West Coast offense and an offensive coordinator, Paul Hackett, who wanted to work as little with Testavarde as the backup quarterback did with him. Testavarde's powerful arm was always best suited for throwing down field, and Parcells is letting him do that again.
"He doesn't play like he's 40," Coughlin marvels.
Testaverde had the best year of his life with Parcells and Keyshawn Johnson in 1998, winning 14 games, the AFC East and reaching the conference championship. Together again, they have the second most productive passing offense in the NFL, including 891 yards through the air in three games.
"Just forget about for a second the fact that we do throw the ball down the field, it's just that I'm in a system that I've been in before," Testaverde says. "I know this system inside out."
Eli Manning hasn't been heard from since he last took the field in the preseason.
Warner was a stranger to Coughlin on the way into the Meadowlands, but snap after snap, he's growing with it all. To be sure, a lot of people are surprised that Warner ever made it to October with the starting job. In most minds, this promised to be the time Warner was losing his grip on the football, his faculties, and the Giants franchise, stumbling to the sidelines with the golden boy No. 1 overall pick tightening his chin strap and hustling into the huddle. His job as the crash dummy for Manning would be winding down, leaving the Giants to the possibilities of tomorrow, and Warner to the memories of his past.
"I'm sure the guys in the locker room listened to what [people] talked about, that I was washed up. 'He can't do it. He can't play.' " Warner says. "I'm sure all that stuff enters their minds. So to be able to play some games and get to a position where I've shown these guys I can play, it means a lot."
The Giants gave Manning every chance to win the job in the preseason. Privately, Warner acknowledges this is just a one-year, one-shot deal with the Giants. He can prove himself here, and perhaps find a new job next season. Unless New York wins a Super Bowl with him, Manning will assuredly be the starting quarterback to begin the 2005 season. This is true for Testaverde too.
"As you get older you realize (you) can't do this forever," Testavarde says. "It's going to end one day soon."
Between now and then, Testaverde and Warner still have the ball in their hands, and the Golden Boys on the sidelines. Together, they have still the biggest thing going in the NFL: Today.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist with the Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com