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Ren-Man Inside
Folktales: Renaissance Man
Kurt Warner's career was nearly over in Arizona - until he authored his final act
By Darren Urban Oct 13, 2023

The newest episode of Folktales premieres Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. Arizona time on the Cardinals' YouTube channel and on

The Cardinals weren't having a good season in 2006, but it allowed rookie first-round quarterback, Matt Leinart, to be put into the lineup as everyone knew he would eventually be.

His backup, Kurt Warner, was considering retirement.

Warner had been an MVP. He had won a Super Bowl. He could still play, he was sure. But if others didn't see it, it didn't make sense to him to stay in the league collecting paychecks. He wasn't built like that.

"Coming to practice every day, believing you're the best player and never getting the chance to play, running scout team after being in the league and winning MVPs and going to Super Bowls, it was mentally exhausting," Warner said. "That's why retirement came to mind.

"That was the most frustrating part of my career."

Warner had just been benched for what would prove to be the final time in his career. He had fumbled 10 times in 3½ games, Leinart had just been a top 10 pick, and the future was calling to the Cardinals even if Warner was just in the first season of a freshly signed three-year contract.

To think that two seasons later, Warner would be setting franchise records and leading the Cardinals to an improbable Super Bowl appearance was, frankly, ridiculous in the moment. Everyone knew the Cardinals were now Leinart's team. No one considered Warner as an option any longer.

Except for Warner – and that belief not only helped him resuscitate his career but paved his way to Canton.

"I went to two Super Bowls and won two MVPs with the Rams," Warner said, "but I still believed I was just as good of a quarterback – if not better – with the Cardinals."

The Cardinals signed Warner in March of 2005, the second of coach Dennis Green's three seasons. Josh McCown was the holdover, but, along with the introduction of the team's new uniforms that spring, they also had a new quarterback.

Warner only signed a one-year deal. He had some interest from the Bears and Lions, but no team was willing to give him a longer-term contract. He was a bridge guy at this point in his career, long past his two MVP seasons with the Rams and a Super Bowl-winning performance. That's what the Giants had done the year before, using Warner for nine games before turning the reins over to rookie Eli Manning.

"As any beat writer at the time, you had lived through the signing of these veteran quarterbacks," said Kent Somers, the Arizona Republic's Cardinals writer at the time. "Boomer Esiason, Dave Krieg, Jim McMahon, Jeff Blake.

"It was like, 'OK, another guy. Kurt Warner.'"

That's not how Warner saw it. But he knew others did.

"Here I am, at this point in my career where nobody expects anything," Warner said. "'He's going into the desert to kind of disappear with the Arizona Cardinals, (and) nobody expected anything from them either.'"

He wasn't healthy all of 2005, but he started all 10 games he played, with 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a middling 85.8 passer rating. He was better than McCown. But he wasn't good enough to create confidence in the future.

The 2006 draft was filled with top QB names – Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler. The Cardinals had the 10th pick, and Warner was aware of the circumstances. He lobbied for himself both privately and publicly, certain that if the team used that high pick on another position, he was the quarterback that could help the franchise turn the corner.

The team signed high-profile free-agent running back Edgerrin James. They were moving into a brand-new stadium in Glendale after years outside in the heat at Sun Devil Stadium.

When Leinart was on the board, the Cardinals made the pick immediately, without using much of the allotted 15 minutes. GM Rod Graves had a phone conversation with Warner after the pick, and said Warner was ready to work with the young QB. Green told Leinart his availability had been a "gift from heaven."

Warner couldn't see it that way.

"When we drafted Matt, that was the first thing that went through my mind," Warner said. "Is this it for me? Will I even get the chance to compete?"

There was no competition needed. Not that first season, not how Green viewed it.

"Denny Green wanted Matt Leinart to learn behind Kurt Warner," Somers said. "He thought Kurt would be a good influence."

Warner, who had signed a three-year contract with the Cardinals a month earlier, took over the starting job. Green said he wanted Leinart to sit all season, and Warner was excellent in the opener against the 49ers in the brand-new then-University of Phoenix Stadium, throwing three touchdowns in a win and taking home NFC offensive Player of the Week honors.

Then it got sideways. Warner, behind a struggling offensive line, ended up with 10 fumbles in the first three-plus games of the season. In Week 3, the Cardinals were down two with less than two minutes in the game when they miraculously recovered a Rams' fumble in short field-goal range.

Warner fumbled away the snap. It turned out right guard Milford Brown had hit the ball as he came out to pull to the left on a running play, but in real time it looked like the over-the-hill QB had fumbled on his own yet again. Moments later, when the game had ended, Warner jogged to the locker room while being booed by the home fans.

It was another symptom of a team that wasn't good enough, one that ultimately lost eight straight and changed coaches at the end of the season.

"I got booed out of the stadium," Warner said. "It was really, really hard. Because it wasn't just about me. It's never just about one player. I knew what I was doing and what I wasn't doing and why I was doing it. That's what makes it so hard, is when nobody else knows. You've got to just accept it."

It was in Atlanta the next week when the Cardinals got blown out, Warner threw a pick-6 and fumbled twice more (losing one), that Green finally turned to Leinart.

And in the postgame radio interview, while Leinart was saying he didn't know what would happen the following week, Green showed up and grabbed the microphone.

"Matt is our starter," Green said theatrically.

Warner, immediately, contemplated retirement. It was the third time he had been displaced by a younger QB. There were only so many chances he could expect to have.

"That was the hardest part of my entire journey was believing what I was capable of, knowing inside how good I still was, what I still had to offer, and not getting the opportunity to do it," Warner said.

The afternoon was hot and sticky in Baltimore for the Cardinals' third game of the 2007 season. The Cardinals didn't win the game, but it was the day that Warner's lost career was found.

Ken Whisenhunt was in his first season as Cardinals coach. Leinart was going to be his starter – that was all but guaranteed coming into the year – and Warner, who ultimately decided to keep playing, was the backup.

Training camp, however, gave a hint of what was to come.

"You had to go back to the whispers of Flagstaff, Arizona, of Kurt Warner being the better quarterback," Cardinals radio analyst Ron Wolfley said. "It wasn't just players that were thinking this … but former coaches as well, the ones that would love to go up to Flagstaff and watch practice.

"They were whispering in the corners of Flagstaff – in the bars of Flagstaff – that Kurt Warner was actually the better quarterback."

Warner, however, wasn't the top 10 pick. He wasn't the quarterback of the future the Cardinals had wanted and needed for so long.

But then the team went to play the Ravens on that sweaty day, and oddly, Warner came out for a series in the middle of the second quarter, the Cardinals' offense going nowhere with Leinart at the controls.

The Cardinals had let Warner work the no-huddle portion of the offense, in part because Warner was so good at it, in part to lessen the load of the inexperienced Leinart as he tried to learn a new offensive system. Whisenhunt hadn't announced the possibility. It just suddenly appeared against the Ravens.

"We talked about it with both quarterbacks," Whisenhunt said. "We talked about it as a staff. We said, 'Look, I know this is really kind of weird, being a platoon offense.' But we had some success and, changing the tempo, from Matt to Kurt, it gave teams a lot more things to prepare for."

It also provided a real-time look at where each quarterback stood. Leinart struggled against a difficult Ravens defense, completing 9-of-20 passes for 53 yards. Warner, in his element, completed 15-of-20 for 258 yards and two touchdowns. Warner had barely played until the score reached 23-6 in favor of the Ravens; the final was 26-23 when the Ravens were forced to kick a game-winning field goal late.

"It got your attention," Whisenhunt said.

"It was probably a little unfair to Matt," Warner said. "But it allowed me to go, 'OK, I get to show you me at my best.' If there's anything I do well, it's dropping back and throwing the football and kind of run the show at the line of scrimmage."

Athletic trainer John Omohundro puts on the left elbow brace for Kurt Warner after Warner played through damaged ligaments in 2007.
Athletic trainer John Omohundro puts on the left elbow brace for Kurt Warner after Warner played through damaged ligaments in 2007.

Leinart stayed in the starting lineup two more games, with Warner seeing spot work, but then it became a moot point. Leinart broke his collarbone on a hit Week 5 in St. Louis, and Warner was going to have more than half a season to prove to Whisenhunt what he believed all along.

"I know there was a perspective, and (offensive coordinator) Todd Haley has even spoken about it, 'We thought Kurt's best days were behind him,'" Warner said. "But every time I got the opportunity to go in and play, it was a chance not only to show the coaching staff but as much as anything to show the locker room."

The Cardinals finished 8-8 that season, the first time they had reached .500 since their playoff season of 1998 a decade earlier. Warner threw for 27 touchdowns and 3,417 yards in only 11 starts and 14 appearances.

He was so focused on capitalizing on what seemed to be his last chance, he found a way to stay in the lineup despite tearing ligaments in his non-throwing left elbow in Week 6 – his first start of the season. For a time he had to handoff backward with his right hand because he couldn't do it with his left.

The last half of the 2007 season, "we kind of honed in on what Kurt did well, what we did well, and we became a lot better as a team," Whisenhunt said.

"That's what that season was doing," Warner said. "Every time I played, it was getting louder and louder – nothing against Matt and nothing against that he could be the future of the organization – that if we wanted to be successful, the best player is Kurt, and we need to have him on the football field."

The way 2007 played out, 2008 figured to be obvious. Warner as starter, Leinart as backup. But Leinart ultimately lost his job the year before through injury, and he was still thought of as the Cardinals' QB of the future. Teams didn't draft a top-10 quarterback -- and spend top-10 quarterback money -- to change course so quickly.

The two were going to compete for the starting job in training camp. Warner had to prove himself one more time.

"It was going to be a question every day at training camp – who's leading, who is winning?" Whisenhunt said. "Kurt had definitely established a little bit of a reputation of running the offense. But we were excited about Matt as a young quarterback too. We didn't want to forget that."

Deuce Lutui was a starting guard for the Cardinals at the time. He also had been the team's second-round pick the year the Cardinals took Leinart and had already been Leinart's teammate at USC. Lutui said Whisenhunt ran the competition to the point the other players weren't sure who was going to end up starting.

That didn't mean the players didn't get a sense of what was to happen.

"That's your friend, you see him in competition, and he's struggling," Lutui said of Leinart. "Kurt, how he competed, it just seemed like he was the one to take us to the Super Bowl."

Whisenhunt didn't make a decision until the team had returned from Flagstaff's training camp. Whisenhunt gave the news on a Saturday, news Leinart did not want to hear but a choice Warner felt was a long time coming.

"I believe, at the end of the day, I will be the best player here and I will not be able to be denied," Warner said.

The story is famously memorable from there. The Cardinals, led by Warner's then-franchise record 30 touchdown passes and a trio of 1,000-yard receivers, won the NFC West title and went on an improbable run to the Super Bowl.

The next season, Warner led the Cardinals to another division title and their first double-digit win season since moving to Arizona. By that time, Warner knew he was ready to close out his career. He gave one final wonderful show in his last-ever home game, completing 29-of-33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns in a 51-45 Wild Card playoff win against the Packers.

"You want to go out on top, you want to go out never having to be thrown out, never having to be pushed out because you can't play," Warner said. "I played as good of football those last three years with the Arizona Cardinals that I did in those three years with the St. Louis Rams.

"Yes I went to two Super Bowls and won two MVPs with the Rams, but I still believed in my mind I was just as good a quarterback – if not better – with the Cardinals."

These were the seasons – and performances – that Warner needed for his Hall of Fame resume. Seasons that wouldn't have happened had Warner chosen to retire after 2006.

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