Warner's the man, at least to Warner

First published: Thursday, August 19, 2004

ALBANY -- He's still the quarterback who takes teams to Olympus. Still the quarterback whose passing statistics are a fantasy of flight. Still the quarterback whose grocery-bags-to-NFL-MVP story felt as good as a kiss.
Kurt Warner is convinced of this.

He's gone from superstar to waiver wire. Untouchable to unwanted. At the end in St. Louis, the Rams were as eager to show Warner the door as he was to pass through it. He was signed by the Giants to be a mentor and stopgap, until Eli Manning is ready. Everything in Warner's career has changed -- but him, he insists.

In nearly every player's career there comes a time when his skills, as Bill Belichick once said of Bernie Kosar's, diminish. Age and injuries make mortals of all. The player knows when he enters the winter of his career, but he won't publicly admit it.

Warner, now 33, says he's the same quarterback, and because he's friendly, and gracious with his time, you want to believe him.

But you don't.

Once, Warner led the Greatest Show on Turf. Now, he's trying to hold Manning at bay long enough to audition for a starting job with another team next season. That's not the same at all.

There has never been an NFL player like Kurt Warner. From stock boy to wonder boy to oh boy, what happened. It would be as if Greg Maddux had gone from video store clerk to Cy Young control artist to a pitcher who stopped throwing strikes, though Warner doesn't see it that way. The Rams' 0-8 record in his last eight games as a starter didn't change Warner's opinion of himself.

"You have to say, 'Did Kurt Warner lose those eight games because Kurt Warner didn't play well, or did the Rams lose those last eight games because the team didn't play well?' " Warner said. "I think that's where people sometimes get skewed in their opinion."

Warner doesn't mention that the Rams were 18-4 the past two seasons when Marc Bulger started at quarterback. Granted, win-loss percentage isn't everything. But it's something. And playing on the same team, with the same players, Bulger enjoyed success while Warner flopped. But if Warner's fumbling 14 times and throwing 11 interceptions with only four touchdowns in those eight games have cracked his confidence, he conceals it behind his disarming smile.

"I feel like I can play as well as anybody in this league," Warner said. "I can still play this game. I don't plan on being average."

Thing is, average would be an improvement.

One trait players like in their quarterback: accountability. They respect a guy who accepts criticism when warranted and shares praise when deserved. But in a recent conversation, this is as close as Warner came to acknowledging he performed poorly the past two seasons in St. Louis.

"I don't think that there's things in those last eight games that I played in that let you say, 'Well, I guess I can't play this game anymore,' " Warner said. "I didn't play it differently. I wasn't less aggressive. I still made plays in all those games; it's just, it's a team thing. When I was going good, my team was going great. I had great talent around me; guys who were making plays. When we weren't going good, we weren't playing that well as a team. We were making mistakes as a team; I was doing my part."

The sprained thumb and twice-broken pinkie and fracture in his throwing hand have healed, Warner says, and don't impair his passing. Just as the hits he absorbed, waiting until the last possible moment so a receiver could separate, haven't affected how he reacts to a pass rush.

Tonight we watch Kurt Warner compete for the Giants' quarterback job. But it's not the same. At all.