Silver: Warner isn’t done just yet
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Kurt Warner nearly tripped over halfback Edgerrin James, stumbling backward after a play-fake as the Buffalo Bills’ pass rush collapsed the pocket around him. The Arizona Cardinals’ 37-year-old quarterback couldn’t see his primary target, Pro Bowl wideout Larry Fitzgerald, as he released a crisp pass to the end zone that only about five NFL quarterbacks would dare attempt.
Warner, having absorbed a blow to his badly swollen right index finger just before the throw, landed hard on his back and winced. Then he heard the roar of 63,830 fans at University of Phoenix Stadium, reacting to Fitzgerald’s diving catch between two defenders late in the third quarter that would extend Arizona’s lead – another big play by the Cardinals’ most important player in a 41-17 victory over a previously undefeated team.
That made Warner happy. But not too happy: Instead of racing into the end zone to join the celebration, Warner simply got up and jogged to the sideline with his head down.
Up in Section 105 his wife, Brenda, shook her head in amazement.
“Seeing him out there today running around like a little boy, it was such a strange sensation,” she explained after the game. “A week ago, when he told me he was going to retire, I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is it. It’s over.’ Now, seeing him out there having so much fun? No way. He’ll probably keep playing, for who knows how long.”
When Warner plays the way he did on Sunday, the Cardinals (3-2), who hold a one-game lead over the San Francisco ***** in the NFC West, look capable of finally becoming a legitimate contender. When they host the Dallas Cowboys next Sunday, it’s not far-fetched to think that Warner could outduel Tony Romo and lead Arizona to its ninth victory in 11 home games under second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Seven days before bringing renewed hope to the Valley of the Sun, Warner was at the lowest point of his professional career. Distressed over a terrifying head injury to teammate Anquan Boldin, the father of seven had decided he was done playing football, effective immediately.
“Something scary like that just makes you contemplate what’s really important and puts football in perspective,” Warner reflected after Sunday’s game. “It’s things like that make you say, ‘This game isn’t everything, and I’m not sure if I can do this anymore.’ Because the bottom line is that all I really want is to be able to go home to my wife and kids.”
A week earlier the deeply religious passer worried that Boldin might not have that privilege. Warner was in a dark and scary place as he rode a team bus from Giants Stadium, where the Cards had just been drubbed by the New York Jets, to the Newark Airport. Warner had been responsible for six turnovers in that 56-35 defeat, throwing three interceptions and losing three of four fumbles on a miserable afternoon, but that wasn’t what gave him the sick feeling in his stomach.
Flashing through his head on continuous loop was the high pass he’d floated to Boldin in the front of the Jets’ end zone with 27 seconds remaining, a futile throw that left the receiver sandwiched between defensive backs Kerry Rhodes and Eric Green. A helmet-to-helmet shot from Green snapped Boldin’s head backwards and left him motionless on the ground, with teammates fearing that he’d been paralyzed. (The NFL later suspended Green for a game and fined him $50,000.)
Knocked momentarily unconscious, with blood spurting from his mouth, Boldin was strapped to a stretcher and taken to a local hospital. Warner, who had led a group of players from both teams in prayer on the field, left Giants Stadium without knowing whether or not his friend was permanently injured. He felt responsible, having purposely avoided similarly high-risk passes on the previous two plays before giving in and launching the ball that left the exceptionally tough Boldin motionless on the turf.
Sitting alone on the bus, praying under his breath while wiping away tears, Warner sent Brenda a text message that stunned her: This is it. I can’t do this anymore. It’s time to retire.
Recalled Brenda: “He meant, like, now.”
Kurt’s mood improved after learning that Boldin would be OK, as the wideout was released from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City later that evening and flew home on team executive Michael Bidwill’s private jet. The standout player known as “Q” had surgery to repair a fractured sinus bone last Thursday night and missed Sunday’s game, though he could return as early as next week.
Meanwhile, Warner’s play on Sunday has everyone associated with the Cardinals feeling whole again. He completed 33 of 42 passes for 250 yards, including a pair of 2-yard scoring throws to Fitzgerald, spreading the ball around to nine receivers. Best of all, he made zero mistakes, allowing Arizona to win the turnover battle by a 4-0 margin.
Granted, the Bills suffered a major blow on the game’s third play from scrimmage when a hard hit by blitzing Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson knocked out Buffalo quarterback Trent Edwards with a concussion. But the way Warner was running the Cards’ offense on Sunday, even Jim Kelly in his heyday would’ve had a hard time keeping pace.
It was a dramatic bounce-back from Warner’s turnover-fest against the Jets, which reignited fears that the ball-security issues which cost the two-time MVP starting jobs with the Rams, Giants and pre-Whisenhunt Cardinals had resurfaced.
To his credit Warner, after banging his index finger on a Jets defender’s helmet early in the game, never used the injury as an excuse, though it prevented him from gripping the ball as tightly as normal.
Whisenhunt, who chose Warner as his starter over presumed franchise quarterback Matt Leinart after a training-camp competition, says he never considered making a switch.
“No, I didn’t,” Whisenhunt said after Sunday’s game. “Kurt and I had a good discussion last week. We talked about what happened, and some of it obviously had to do with the circumstances of that game. But overall we’re very happy with Kurt. There are things we’ve asked him to do, and there are some things we’ve done to adapt to what he does well. And when we don’t make mistakes, we’re a pretty good football team.”
For all of the young talent on the Cardinals’ roster, the key to Whisenhunt’s team is Warner. That’s something virtually no one saw coming after Arizona drafted Leinart, the former Heisman Trophy winner and USC star, with the 10th overall pick of the ‘06 draft and installed him as the team’s starter in the fifth week of his rookie season.
Leinart may still have a bright future, but there’s no doubt that the Cardinals are Warner’s team.
“Kurt’s the consummate professional,” Fitzgerald said Sunday. “He’s seen everything. He’s been through the peaks and he’s been through the valleys, and I know nothing’s going to faze him. We’re a different team to deal with when Kurt’s playing at this level.”
That was clear on Arizona’s first drive when, on first-and-goal from the 2, he got to the line of scrimmage with the option to run or pass – one of the wrinkles Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have installed to take advantage of Warner’s experience – and correctly identified the Bills’ defense. After shouting out a play at the line that called for Fitzgerald, who was in the right slot, to run a fade to the corner of the end zone, Warner froze defensive backs Leodis McKelvin and Ashton Youboty with a sly pump fake. Both Bills defenders broke on an inside route as Warner lofted the ball to the wide-open Fitzgerald for the game’s first score.
In the second quarter Warner absorbed a hit from linebacker Kawika Mitchell that split his chin, requiring stitches on the sidelines. He spent the rest of the game with a white adhesive bandage covering the bottom of his salt-and-pepper (OK, it’s mostly salt) goatee. The quarterback’s index finger, which earlier in the week had swelled to the size of 6-foot-4, 332-pound Arizona guard Deuce Lutui’s, continued to affect his grip, but he found a way to make that work, too.
Warner never saw the outcome of the game’s most memorable play, the scoring pass to Fitzgerald that the sprawled-out receiver somehow snatched between defenders McKelvin and Kyle Williams, giving the Cardinals a 31-17 lead.
“I’m sure he knew I would catch it,” Fitzgerald reasoned. “It’s all calculated with him. He saw me break free, and he put it where he needed to put it.”
Well, maybe not.
“I had no idea he’d catch it,” Warner said, laughing. “I was just trying to put it somewhere where only he could get it. But I really didn’t think he could get there.”
Call it blind faith – the same kind of unquestioned belief the Cardinals have in their graying quarterback.
“He looked so young out there today,” Brenda said.
Too young to walk away, perspective be damned.