Washed Up Warner

Published 1:14 am Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Four years ago Kurt Warner was having a hard time finding a job.

No matter that he had been to two Super Bowls and won one of them, or that he’d been an NFL and Super Bowl MVP.

The perception was that he was washed up, finished, that his storybook career was approaching an ignominious end.

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Then the 37-year-old quarterback wrote the most amazing chapter of all with a season that might cement him a spot on football’s Hall of Fame, especially if he can lead the Arizona Cardinals, of all teams, to a Super Bowl victory Sunday over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

‘‘Hopefully, it would recognize him for exactly what he is — one of the best players to ever play his position,’’ his coach, Ken Whisenhunt, said.

Warner’s story is rooted in a deep faith and a persistent drive to be the very best he can be as a person and a football player.

‘‘My approach is hoping that every player that I’ve played with, every place that I’ve been, that in some way, shape or form, I leave my stamp on those people and those places,’’ he said at the Super Bowl media day on Tuesday. ‘‘That’s what I want my legacy to be. The football stuff, that’s all gravy.’’

The football stuff impresses his Pittsburgh counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger.

‘‘He’s gone through so much and done so much,’’ Roethlisberger said. ‘‘To me, I love watching him play. He throws an unbelievable pass and — you know what? — I have a lot of respect for him and the way he plays the game.’’

Warner’s return to the top is a dominant theme leading up to this Super Bowl, just as it was in his 1999 season.

‘‘Most times when you do something great, it’s not overnight,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s not something that comes easy. It comes with a lot of hard work, a lot of time, a lot of commitment.’’

The comment pretty much sums up his life.

Warner played for Northern Iowa, but didn’t start until he was a senior. Then he tried out for the Green Bay Packers, but was quickly released. So it was back to Cedar Rapids, where he got a job stocking shelves for a supermarket.

His route from there to the NFL included three seasons with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League and two years with the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe.

Before the 1999 season, Warner was a backup with the Rams when starter Trent Green was injured. Coach Dick Vermeil turned to Warner, and the result was one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history.

In the next three years, despite missing five games because of injury, Warner threw for 12,612 yards and 98 touchdowns. There was the Super Bowl championship season and the near-miss against New England in 2001.

But injuries to his finger and hand in 2002 signaled the beginning of the end of his days in St. Louis.

He lost the starting job to Marc Bulger and was released by the Rams after the 2003 season.

‘‘I never felt like the physical part of my game ever disappeared,’’ Warner said. ‘‘I felt like that was always there. The one question I had when I left St. Louis was would I ever get the opportunity to display that again.’’

He signed a one-year deal with the New York Giants, but was replaced by rookie Eli Manning 10 games into the season after an awful game against the Cardinals.

At 33, Warner found no serious offers, except from the lowly Cards, perennial doormats in the NFL.

Even in Arizona, success never came easily.

‘‘I worked my butt off this year to try to prove they made the right decision, not only this year but when they signed me four years ago,’’ Warner said, ‘‘to try to pay back as much as I can for what they’ve given me.’’

Warner was limited by injuries to 10 starts in 2005. In 2006, then-coach Dennis Green made Warner the starter after training camp, but again he was replaced by a rookie — when Matt Leinart took over five games into the season.

Whisenhunt replaced the fired Green in 2007, and Warner had to prove himself all over again.

‘‘This league is so much built on what someone’s perception of you is,’’ Warner said. ‘‘I know that even when this coaching staff came here … that they really felt that this guy is on the tail end of his career, he’s just kind of hanging on.’’

Whisenhunt kept Leinart as the starter, but sent Warner into three games to operate a productive, no-huddle offense. Then Leinart went down with a broken collarbone five games into the season, and Warner had the job full time.

He played despite a dislocated elbow in his left, non-throwing arm, earning even more respect from his teammates for his toughness.

Warner threw for 3,417 yards and 27 touchdowns, but at season’s end it was the same old story: Leinart was the starter.

Whisenhunt, though, assured Warner he’d have an opportunity to compete for the job in training camp, and after the final preseason game of 2008, Whisenhunt made Warner the starter.

‘‘It was a week and a day before our first regular-season game,’’ Whisenhunt said, ‘‘and I stayed up all night making the decision. … As I’ve said before, it was a very close competition. It came down to what I felt was the player that gave us the chance to win early.’’

Warner found an offensive rhythm with his powerhouse group of receivers and the Cardinals took flight. His statistics this season rival those of his St. Louis days, finishing second in the NFL in completions (401), second in completion percentage (67.1), second in yards passing (4,583) and third in passing touchdowns (30).

And the offense kicked into an even higher gear in the playoffs, with the Cardinals beating Atlanta 30-24, Carolina 33-13 and Philadelphia 32-25.

Steelers safety Ryan Clark calls Warner ‘‘one of the most accurate passers in the game right now.’’

‘‘A lot of times, Fitzgerald’s covered or Boldin’s covered or Breaston’s covered, he knows exactly the spot to put it where only his receivers could catch the ball,’’ Clark said.

Warner will make his 20th start of the season on Sunday, the most of his career. As far as his teammates are concerned, he’s already a Hall of Famer.

‘‘I told him after the NFC championship that I just want a ticket to Canton, Ohio, when he gets in,’’ defensive end Bertrand Berry said. ‘‘When you think about what he’s done in his career and what he’s accomplished in his career, to think that there is even a question about whether he’ll be a Hall of Famer or not, to me, is ridiculous.’’

Warner’s contract with Arizona ends after the Super Bowl. General manager Rod Graves says Warner wants to come back and the Cardinals want to re-sign him. It’s hard to imagine him not wanting to keep flinging the ball after a season like this.

But Warner also hints at retirement. His wife Brenda would like him at home with their seven children and he’d have more time to work with his First Things First foundation.

It’s a Christian organization to match his faith-based life.

‘‘Everything I do, everywhere I go, I’m trying to live up to or represent Jesus,’’ Warner said. ‘‘Having the faith I have is first and foremost in my life.’’