GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Seven years ago, the Arizona Cardinals were lost. They had one playoff win in 60 years and were coming off eight straight losing seasons. The last time they had legitimate hopes of winning a championship was before they were the Arizona Cardinals, the Phoenix Cardinals or the St. Louis Cardinals. It was when they were the second fiddle team in Chicago in a league ravaged by World War II. They were especially lost at the quarterback, as they had not had a Pro Bowler at the position in 20 years.
Kurt Warner, meanwhile, was not Kurt Warner of the fairy tale Rams. This was broken down, 36-year-old Kurt Warner. In his last two seasons in St. Louis, Warner had gone 0-7 as a starter with 17 turnovers. He went to the Giants for one season in 2004, where the old fashioned offense made him feel like he was wearing a weighted vest. He was just there to stall until Eli Manning was ready, anyway. In his first two years in Arizona, he failed to revive his career and his team. Then Ken Whisenhunt took over as head coach. "He was finished," Whisenhunt said. "That was the impression. Everybody had written him off. There wasn't anybody who thought he could still play."
With that backdrop, Warner and Whisenhunt's Cardinals began a journey together. And as destiny and resolve would have it, that journey will culminate in a halftime ceremony Monday night that would have been inconceivable seven years ago.
Back then, the Cardinals needed a quarterback who could throw pinpoint passes, find the soft spots in defenses and battle back from adversity. But what they needed more was a quarterback who could free them from their past, who could unite them, who could unleash their imagination.
Warner, meanwhile, needed opportunity. He really didn't deserve it, but what he saw in the mirror was different from what the rest of the world saw. He inexplicably still had this unflappable confidence. He told Whisenhunt that if he gave him a chance, he would win the starting job. Whisenhunt, a walk-on tight end at Georgia Tech and a 12th round draft pick who played seven years in the NFL, was not as dismissive of long shots as most. He told Warner he would give him a chance, but Warner had to make changes.
The year before, Warner fumbled ten times in six games. In a September home game against the Rams, he was booed off the field after losing a fumble in the closing seconds of a 16-14 loss. Whisenhunt insisted that Warner keep two hands on the ball and improve his movement in the pocket in order to avoid hits. "We worked on it in Arizona, worked on it, worked on it, worked on it," said Warner, who also started wearing gloves full-time in 2007 in an attempt to improve his grip. "I'll be the first to admit I was never great with the ball security, keeping two hands on the ball. It was a bad habit I developed. I tried to get better at it."
The 2007 season began with Matt Leinart as the starter. The Cardinals had chosen him with the tenth pick of the 2006 draft. But Warner had impressed Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley sufficiently in camp. "On tape it looked like his better days were behind him," Haley said. "But as soon as he got on the field, you saw the accuracy. It was second to none. I never saw anyone throw anyone like that. And his anticipation was phenomenal. We'd go seven-on-seven for weeks at a time when he wouldn't miss. And not only wouldn't he miss, but he would put the ball exactly in a position where receivers could maximize their run after catch."
The coaches knew they could get something out of Warner even if they had to play Leinart. So they installed a no huddle package just for Warner. In the third game of the season at Baltimore, the Ravens built a 23-6 lead when Whisenhunt went with Warner and the no huddle package. Warner led the Cardinals to four scoring drives in the fourth quarter to tie the score before the Ravens ended the game with a field goal to win. Three games later, Leinart was injured and Warner became the starter.
He re-established himself that year and set himself up for 2008, a season that, in its own way, was as remarkable as his 1999 fairy tale year with the Rams. Whisenhunt staged a competition for the starting job in camp. Six days before the regular season opener, he announced he had chosen Warner over Leinart. He was roundly criticized by media and fans.
Whisenhunt's players, however, were not as disbelieving as the public. By 2008, safety Adrian Wilson was a seven-year Cardinals veteran who had never played on a winning team. He had watched Jake Plummer, Jeff Blake, Josh McCown, Shaun King and John Navarre come and go, and now he was watching the prime of his career slide away. He was desperate for someone to lead his team, and he found that man in Warner. "He created stability where there wasn't a lot of stability," Wilson said. "We felt we had a quarterback who was going to have us in every game and was not going to turn the ball over. He gave us a belief that we could win. He believed in guys even when they didn't believe in themselves."
Warner no longer was a young player taking orders as he had been during the first act of his career. With the Cardinals he was an elder statesman, and his bold self-assuredness seeped through the locker room. "There is no doubt he brought confidence to the players," Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said. "No matter what the circumstances were in a game, players believed that if Kurt was under center, we had a chance to win in the fourth quarter."
Warner, the one-time grocery store stock boy, may have been the only player in the league who could have changed the Cardinals. Given their institutional ineptness, the Cardinals may not have known how to believe in themselves. Warner recalls having dinner with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald early in his Arizona tenure. He chided him for not focusing more in practice. "I asked him, 'Don't you want to be the best?'" Warner said. "He said something like, 'You know what Kurt, I'm pretty good now.' There wasn't an arrogance, but there was a complacency. Right then, I understood. A lot of people there believed that how they were doing it was good enough. So I had to establish to be great, you had to set a higher standard in everything you do. It was setting a precedent. It was wanting to be great. I needed to let them see that in the way I competed every day. I wanted to beat the defense every single time. I never wanted the ball to touch the ground."
After practice, Warner would not join the tide of players rolling off the field and into the locker room. He stayed in the broiling sun with receivers to work on routes. The receivers eventually would walk off and Warner would remain, practicing his drops with Haley in a sweat soaked jersey. He'd have Haley rush him and they would work on his pocket movements and his reactions to pressure. "When you got to the point where you earned respect, then you could demand that everybody raise their game," Warner said. "You didn't let people settle for good enough."
Whisenhunt remembers Warner spending extra time at the facility, in the darkness of the early morning and the quiet of the evening, often watching tape with teammates. "When you have a guy who is playing at that level and working the way he was working, it sets the standard for other guys to work the same way," said Whisenhunt, who now is the head coach of the Titans.
Warner worked all corners of the locker room, and he paid particular attention to the wide receivers. Quarterbacks and wide receivers typically have separate meetings. At the Cardinals facility in Tempe then, they had their meetings together. That helps to explain how Fitzgerald, Boldin and Steve Breaston all had 1,000-plus receiving yards in 2008. It was only the fifth time in history three receivers on the same team went over 1,000.
Warner used different means to reach different players. "He knew he could yell at me, but with Anquan he would talk to him privately," Fitzgerald said. "He knew how to motivate each person. He could diagnose what each guy responded to and didn't respond to."
Fitzgerald already was a productive wide receiver when Warner became his quarterback, but Warner made him a complete player who could run any route the right way. Earlier in his career, Fitzgerald said he made a living mostly by running up the numbers and out jumping defenders. Fitzgerald said Warner sat him down and told him, "I know you are very talented at taking the ball at the highest point. But if you are going to have success with me, you are going to have to learn to play the game my way. You need to watch Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt and Az Hakim."
Fitzgerald did just that, and then Warner helped Fitzgerald by giving him passes he could run with. In 2006 when Leinart was the starter, Fitzgerald averaged 3.23 yards after the catch. In 2008 when Warner was the yearlong starter, Fitzgerald averaged 4.80 yards after the catch, according to Stats.
In some cases, Warner wasn't just throwing completions. He was designing them too. Leinart once said Warner would come in every Monday and implement 20-to-30 new plays for that week's game plan. Haley said on Tuesdays Warner would fax him 20-some sheets of plays he drew up after watching tape. Then, as the week went on, they could communicate at any hour. "He'd be sitting at one of his kid's football games and I could hear the racket," Haley said. "He's got his laptop in the stands. He's telling me to look at a play and pointing out an opportunity. He was almost like an additional coach."
Warner was so much a part of the planning that the coaching staff gave him more autonomy through a "signals package," in which Haley would call the formation and protection and Warner would direct the play call based on his pre-snap read. At the time, Peyton Manning was running his games at the line of scrimmage for the Colts, but very few other teams were giving quarterbacks many play calling choices under center. As the 2008 season progressed, the signals package became more and more central to the Cardinals offense.
This was not the Greatest Show on Turf offense Warner had directed with the Rams. It was missing some future hall of famers, artificial grass and the brilliant passing concepts of Mike Martz. But somehow Warner attained a similar level of efficiency and productivity. "He had an opportunity to show his genius again, and he did that," Whisenhunt said. "I never got the sense it was the St. Louis Kurt we had. It was a different Kurt, a Kurt who went about it a different way. Our team felt with his leadership and his belief that we were going to find a way to be successful. That created an atmosphere that helped us overcome a lot of things. It was like he was our Kurt."
The Cardinals won nine games in the 2008 regular season, and finished first in their division for the first time in 33 years. Team officials were elated with the accomplishment. When the players showed up the day after clinching, they were greeted by a huge banner on their practice field that proclaimed them NFC West champions. Warner was not happy with the display, and let his feelings be known. "A guy like Kurt is sitting there thinking, 'This is just the beginning, we haven't done anything,'" said Haley, who now is the Steelers offensive coordinator. "He was a true champion in everything he did."
Broadcaster Cris Collinsworth called the 2008 Cardinals the worst playoff team in history. Warner knew the Cardinals had to stay hungry in order to have a chance in the postseason. They beat the Falcons at home, then went on the road against a Panthers team that was favored by 10 points. Warner gathered the team before the game. He wasn't much for speeches, but he had to say something. "There is no feeling like playing when everyone else is watching," he told his teammates. "Let's go out and shock the world." After the Panthers went up 7-0, the Cardinals scored 33 unanswered points to do just that. "Shock the world" became their rallying cry, and the outside world picked up on the slogan. The Cardinals were shocking the next week too with another upset, this one over the Eagles in the NFC Championship game.
That led them to Tampa against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals were 7 1/2 point underdogs in this game, and the Steelers went up 20-7 before Haley opened up the offense in the fourth quarter. The Cardinals put up 16 straight points and took a three-point lead with 2:37 remaining on a 64-yard Warner to Fitzgerald touchdown. But the Steelers scored again and ended the Cardinals' final desperation drive with a strip sack of Warner.
The next season, Warner might have been even better. He set a record for completion percentage in a game against the Jaguars and threw more touchdown passes than incompletions (five to four) in an astonishing 51-45 overtime wildcard victory over the Packers. The Cardinals season ended in the divisional playoff round after Saints defensive end Bobby McCray took out Warner with a cheap shot for which he undoubtedly was paid a bounty. Warner had enough, and later that month he announced his retirement.
Many thought Warner would have been crestfallen by not winning another Super Bowl, but that was not the case. Warner, now an analyst for NFL Network, explains. "Early on, every loss tore me up," he said. "Especially the Super Bowl loss in St. Louis. It dominated my thinking. As I grew through that time in New York and Arizona, I got a bigger perspective. I wanted to win just as much, but when we lost the Super Bowl to the Steelers, it didn't crush me. I came to appreciate the moments you have in life, like when we made it to the Super Bowl, and when Larry crossed the goal line. Even if it was only for two minutes, it was maybe the only two minutes when anybody thought the Cardinals could be world champion. Those moments are so special, and you appreciate them regardless of the final outcome. You could win without winning. That was hard for me to understand when I was younger."
Kurt Warner taught the Cardinals how to win. Then he taught them how to lose. He showed them what it meant to be a good teammate, husband, father and Christian. He provided lessons about pride, respect and faith. He showed them how to come back, and then he showed them how to walk away. Warner will be inducted into the Cardinals ring of honor at halftime Monday night for the way he impacted lives as well as the way he impacted games.
Fitzgerald remembers a time toward the end of the 2005 season when the world was collapsing on Warner. In a game with no meaningful implications, Warner blew out his MCL. He was out for the year. His wife Brenda just had back surgery, and then a blood clot developed that could have killed her. She needed more surgery. At home were their baby twins, Sienna and Sierra, along with their five other children. "All those scenarios would make the average person go crazy," Fitzgerald said. "But he was handling so much adversity with dignity and class, and treating everybody around him with respect. He was such a role model. I was very fortunate to play with him."
After the Cardinals were thrashed by the Patriots near the end of the 2008 season, Haley wanted to cuss out the offense. But before he could, he had to ask Warner's permission to use foul language. "Kurt held us to a higher standard and made you a better person when you were around him," he said. "The best thing you can say about someone is he makes you a better person just by being around him. He did that with everyone. I love him and miss him all the time." Haley left the Cardinals to become a head coach in Kansas City, but he would always think about Warner when things weren't going well because Warner always had a way of lifting his spirits.
Warner was the perfect quarterback for the Cardinals, and the Cardinals were the perfect team for Warner. "Think about who Arizona was, and who Kurt Warner was," Warner said. "That team never had a chance. And that really was who I was too. That's how my career played out. We were able to come together and accomplish things nobody thought were possible. It was a bunch of guys coming together and believing, and I was able to kind of be the linchpin to take that team to a place no one ever thought they would go. It was so perfect, the perfect ending to what was such a great ride for me."
The perfect ending will come Monday.