On Aug. 28, 1999, I was at a house party in St. Louis, where I was working as an associate online editor for The Sporting News. It was basically my job to stay up all night waiting for, say, a Sonics-Clippers game to get over so I could post it to the TSN website, the sort of job that is now done by a robot and probably could have been done by one back then. It was a rare Saturday night off, and it was starting to cool off in St. Louis, one of those lovely nights where a bunch of kids fresh out of school and finally with a little bit of money in their pocket go get a keg and try to pretend they're back in college again.
The party didn't get started until about 10 p.m. -- which is roughly about the time I make it home now -- and about a half hour in, a group of guys from work stumbled in wearing Orlando Pace jerseys and looking ashen. Contrary to what Stan Kroenke's toupee will tell you, there was (and is) a lot of passion in St. Louis for football, and that year's Rams squad was primed to the best they'd had since the franchise had come to town. After four losing seasons, the Rams had decided to floor it in 1999, trading with the Colts for Marshall Faulk -- a comically puny package, a second rounder and a fifth rounder -- and, even more exciting, signing free agent quarterback Trent Green from Washington for a massive four-year, $16.5 million. Green was everything St. Louis wanted in a quarterback: efficient, a big arm, massive smile, matinee idol looks and not even a passing resemblance to Tony Banks, who had just crapped out as the Rams starter. Best of all, Green was from St. Louis. As David Freese can tell you, there is nothing quite like being the local hero leading a St. Louis sports team. And Green had been brilliant that preseason, hitting on 28 of 32 passes; it appeared he had a lot of weapons.
But that night, it all fell apart. Green, during a preseason game against the Chargers, went back to pass and, while setting his back leg to throw, had the misfortune of playing against Rodney Harrison, who dove into his knee, tearing the cartilage and ending his season. All the excitement for the Rams was gone, and my partygoing friends were in no mood for revelry. "This season was going to be amazing," one said. "And now it's over. Football is stupid." I mentioned, as I poured him a conciliatory Icehouse from the keg, that I didn't even know who the Rams backup was. He frowned.
"Some guy named Kurt Warner," he said. "We're doomed."
I thought for a second he was talking about the Penn State running back.
On Tuesday, the NFL announced its 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The leading candidate is LaDainian Tomlinson, a former MVP and the running back with the fifth-most rushing yards of all time. Other possibilities included Terrell Owens, Alan Faneca, John Lynch, Terrell Davis, Brian Dawkins and Jason Taylor. (Also, you have gotten very old.) But the biggest name on the ballot, to my eyes, remains Kurt Warner. This is his third attempt to make the Hall, and there is a school of thought that this, at last, will be the year. I cannot fathom how it has taken him so long.
I have never seen a quarterback -- not Brady, not Montana, not Manning, not Favre -- who, at his peak, made you feel that he was obviously going to throw a 50-yard touchdown pass any second. When Warner was humming -- and he was not always humming -- he played quarterback like it was the easiest thing in the world, like dropping back and firing a downfield laser to a streaking receiver was the simplest, most basic thing in the world.
I wrote about Warner back in 2010, and I can't put it better than I did then:
It's difficult to describe Warner, when he's on, when he's '99 Warner, as anything other than bionic. He is a robotically constructed quarterback machine, showing no emotion, no fear, no joy, no panic: He throws the ball exactly where it's supposed to go because that's where it's supposed to go. It's not the chaos of Favre, or the nerdy precision of Manning, or the All-American faux heroism of Brady. There's nothing to it at all: Warner just hits exactly his spot and then jogs down the field to do it again. It's unnerving. It's inhuman. It does not compute.
Kurt Warner plays football like most people take out the mail, or pour milk on their cereal, or pump gas. He just happens to be brilliant at it. There is no mess. He is a reasonable, removed man playing a savage game, and he barely seems to notice. I've seen Kurt Warner get angry on the field, I've seen him frustrated, I've seen him in pain ... but I've never seen him nervous. Warner plays like he knows how this story ends.
Imagine what that was like, back in 1999, to have golden boy Green go down, for Rams fans to believe that their season was over … and then have that guy fall from the sky. The Warner story is legend by this point, but don't let that legend calcify to the point that you forgot how legitimately stupid it was that a guy who had been working at a grocery store five years before was thrust into starting and somehow threw like that. (The MMQB's Emily Kaplan wrote a great piece about that particular grocery store last year.)
Warner played in the Arena League and led NFL Europe in touchdowns for the Amsterdam Admirals. (It does feel like the development of quarterbacks was helped by NFL Europe; his backup for Amsterdam was Jake Delhomme.) He married a Marine, for cripes sake. Nothing about Warner's career, or life, even resembled anything we'd ever seen before. And he could throw footballs like an angel. Here are some particularly great ones.
The '99 Rams team, the Greatest Show on Turf, remains the most purely enjoyable NFL team I've ever seen, not just because they were so dominant (they were), but because they were so unexpected. The Rams were thought to be doomed after Green's injury, and not only were they not doomed, they turned out to have one of the best offenses of all time. I had tickets to the Rams-49ers game on my 24th birthday, and, hungover and groggy as usual, I watched Warner have a game for the ages, going 20-for-23 for 323 yards and five touchdowns. It felt like a video game, but a video game with some sort of flaw in it that allowed some dope to wander in off the street and become one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived.
The Rams would end up winning the Super Bowl that year, in a deeply satisfying way, not by blowing away their opponent, the Tennessee Titans, but by outlasting them: It turned out the flashy Rams had some grit after all. But Warner's touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce, which gave the Rams the lead they'd end up barely hanging on to, was as pretty as any of them.
The Rams would be back in the Super Bowl in the 2001-02 season, coached by Mike Martz, an enigmatic weirdo whose arrogance so pronounced that, somehow, some way, America cheered for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the Super Bowl against them. Warner played well in that game and probably should have won his second Super Bowl. I suspect if he had won that game, he'd already be in the Hall of Fame.
Instead, Martz went power mad -- he'd crap out of the league within three years -- and next thing you knew, Marc Bulger was starting and the Rams' mini-boomlet was over. (The Rams have had just one winning season since Warner left, an amazing stat.) Warner went to the Giants, where he immediately struggled, playing in the wrong system, for the wrong team, in the wrong town. Part of me believes Warner committed the ultimate sin in the eyes of Hall of Fame voters: He had his bad year in New York City.
Warner ended up in Arizona, where he did something maybe even more impressive than what he did in St. Louis: He brought the Cardinals, the worst franchise in the league for about 50 years, to the Super Bowl, with an offense that, at its peak, was as much fun to watch as the one in St. Louis. Warner was Warner again, the guy who could drop a ball in a receiver's hands mid-stride from anywhere on the field. It was his magic act. Warner retired from the Cardinals, but it's undeniable that what he did for that franchise laid the groundwork for the success it has had in the years since: In a way, the fancy new Cardinals stadium is the house that Warner (and Larry Fitzgerald, of course) built.
Warner won a Super Bowl and an MVP. He reached two other Super Bowls. He rejuvenated two moribund NFL franchises. He was the pilot of the most giddily enjoyable offense most of us have ever seen. He has one of the most inspiring, ridiculous narrative backstories in NFL history. He played quarterback at a peak that few, if any, have ever approached. He is my favorite football player of all time.
Hall of Fames are silly, hours of bar talk that we've cobbled into a museum. But if you don't have a space for Kurt Warner in your Hall of Fame, I don't know why you have a Hall of Fame. When I think of what football can be, at its best, I think of Kurt Warner.
I just don't want to admit that we sort of have Rodney Harrison to thank for him.