When Kurt Warner was being beaten and battered by Jim Johnson's defense in the 2004 season opener as the starting quarterback of the Giants, winning a third league MVP award was the furthest thing from his mind.
Fast forward four years and the 37-year-old Warner is once again drawing a lot of praise as he has the Arizona Cardinals in their first-ever NFC Championship Game.
"I think for a couple of years there his confidence might have been a little down, a little shaky," free safety Brian Dawkins said. "People were talking about, he's fumbling the ball too much and all that stuff, but now he's not doing that as much and he's putting the ball in his playmakers' hands."
Many NFL pundits thought Warner's best years were already behind him. Turns out, he has revived his career in the Arizona desert as the triggerman for the league's second-ranked passing offense. And just as Warner had a corps of playmakers in St. Louis - Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk - he has three 1,000-yard receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. The Cardinals became just the third team in NFL history to accomplish the feat. But it all starts with the quarterback.
|If you bring pressure, it better get home. Warner is good against the blitz|
"He's putting things right on the money," Dawkins said. "He's putting the ball in his playmakers' hands. Those guys don't have to do anything but catch the ball and continue to run. He's putting the ball where it needs to be."
This season, Warner was third in the NFL with a 96.9 QB rating after throwing for 4,583 yards, 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He completed 67.1 percent of his passes for a team that had the most lopsided pass/run ratio in the league.
Warner threw for at least 300 yards seven times including at one point in the season five games in a row. That streak was stopped on Thanksgiving night by the Eagles (21-of-39 for 235 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions). Only once has he thrown for more than 300 yards against an Eagles defense (Sept. 9, 2001).
"Coach (Jim) Johnson always does a tremendous job of bringing pressure," said Warner, who is 2-4 lifetime as a starter against Philadelphia.
Warner in his career has had mixed results against Johnson's pressure-packed scheme. In six career games against the Eagles (including playoffs), Warner has averaged 219.5 passing yards per game, with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. Philadelphia's defense has sacked Warner 19 times and he has lost two fumbles.
In fact, Warner's teams have lost in their last three trips to Philadelphia. In 2002, the then-Rams quarterback was picked off twice and sacked eight times in a 10-3 loss, and in 2004 as the starting quarterback of the Giants Warner threw for 203 yards and was sacked four times in a 31-17 defeat. And of course, there was the 48-20 loss this season on Thanksgiving night.
When the Eagles faced Warner in the past, their strategy always was to put a beating on him. However, he handled the pressure well in 2008. According to STATS, Inc., Warner ranked 10th in the league against the blitz with a 103.1 QB rating. He completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 1,645 yards, 14 touchdowns against four interceptions in blitz situations.
"You have to make sure that when you do bring pressure that you get home because he can pick you apart," linebacker Omar Gaither said. "He still has an arm and he has two of the best targets in the league. That's just a good combination for him. Those guys have revived his career in a lot of ways."
Warner was on the winning side when the Rams beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game following the 2001 season. He went on to start just nine games over the next two seasons and, suddenly, the former Arena Football quarterback-turned-two-time NFL MVP and one-time Super Bowl MVP was considered damaged goods and was released by the Rams in 2004. After a year in New York, Warner signed with the Cardinals and has seemed to have found a home there.
Warner started 15 games over his first two seasons in Arizona, but endured his struggles.
"When I was benched here I did kind of wonder if I would ever get the chance again to really lead a team and have a team that would commit to me for the long haul," Warner said.
Warner began the 2007 season as Matt Leinart's backup and at times, rotated in with Leinart. But he ended up starting 11 games when Leinart was lost to a season-ending injury. Warner threw for an NFL-high 21 touchdown passes and posted four 300-yard passing games over the final eight games while leading the Cardinals to a 5-3 record.
Warner appeared to be the odd man out during the last offseason and even into training camp as Arizona looked to Leinart as the heir apparent to the offense, but Warner won the starting job. He has continued his high level of play in 2008 and now is the roadblock between the Eagles and their second trip to the Super Bowl appearance in five years.
"Ultimately, it just came down to a decision of which one would give us the fastest start," said head coach Ken Whisenhunt in discussing his quarterback decision.
Certainly, the coaching staff made the right call.