Quarterbacks coach Chris Miller (left) gives Kurt Warner a hug -- goodbye? -- at the end of the Cards' season-ending playoff loss in New Orleans.
Over the last few seasons, retirement has never been far from Kurt Warner's mind.
The subject came up as far back as October of 2006, when then-rookie Matt Leinart was entrenched as the starter and Warner was contemplating walking away from the game at the end of the season rather than remain a backup.
Every year since, it's been a consideration, even as his career has enjoyed a rebirth.
"I don't think you ever want to stay too long," Warner said following the Wild Card playoff game, "but you never want to go out before it's time."
Sometime in the next few weeks, Warner is expected to once again declare if he is in or he is out. The rumor mill spits out he is likely going to retire, but that notion was practically discredited by Warner himself Sunday when he admitted he was ready to retire following the Super Bowl last season – only to change his mind a few days later.
There's a reason Warner keeps saying he doesn't want to make an emotional decision about walking away. Because the emotion of the end of the season – of being beaten up, physically and mentally, for months and with so much time away from the family he cherishes – would lead him to quit.
Ultimately, Warner said the decision to play or not comes down to "want-to" – as in, a desire to put in the work it takes to manage his body and his mind for another season at the level at which he wants to play, and his desire to put his physical well-being on the line again.
The various factors involved with the decision carry with them different weight. A look at some of those likely included in the thought process:
-- Warner wants to spend time with his family. He joked how his kids are split on the subject – the boys enjoy having a dad playing in the NFL, the girls not so much – but there is little question he aches every time he has to leave town, or go to training camp, or spend the countless hours at the team facility. The ability to recover all that time in his life would be savored (and is the reason Warner will never be an assistant coach, a dream to which many fans still cling).
-- Concussions, and more generally the pounding he takes in the pocket, are a concern. Warner has always wanted to walk away from the game relatively healthy, and the reality doesn't always sit well with him (for instance, his emotional reaction to Anquan Boldin's facial fracture in New York in 2008 and his immediate thought that he'd want to quit after the season).
Perspective changed drastically this season when he suffered his concussion in St. Louis. With all the talk in the league about long-term concussion effects, Warner took it all to heart. And he wasn't happy with what he perceived as defenders intentionally going after his head once he returned to the field (including twice by the Saints).
-- Warner has said many times money and his contract don't really have an impact. I believe him. But he would also stand to make $4 million in salary if he comes back and the Cards could, in theory, try and recoup a pro-rated part of his signing bonus – which would be another $7.5 million – if he leaves the game. Warner has more money than he'll ever need, but for the kind of charitable work he plans on doing the rest of his life, another $10 million goes a long way.
-- There are his teammates, of course, and any obligation he might feel to them. That would never trump his family, but if you think Larry Fitzgerald is just sitting idly by and not letting Warner know constantly how much he wants Warner to return, that's just being naïve. There is little question the Cards still have a team that can win the NFC West and conceivably contend for a Super Bowl. It'd be hard to walk away from that – especially when Warner knows he's a key piece to such an equation.
-- And that leads into what might be, aside from family, the most important part of the puzzle: Warner's own competitiveness and athletic mortality.
Warner's play clearly dictates he remains one of the best in the NFL. He hasn't slipped, and he will still have all the weapons around him next season – when he will be 39 – to ostensibly play well again. Warner is a better man than most, but he too has an ego and the Hall of Fame clearly is important to him. While it would seem Warner's Hall case is already solid, another good season can only help his legacy.
Besides, he still loves the game. Everything that goes into it? Maybe not as much. But the games are still important to him, as is the quest for a championship. Once you walk away, that's gone forever (assuming you're not named Brett Favre).
You don't want to stay too long. But you really don't want to leave too early.
"The hard part," Warner said, "is trying to figure that out."
For the Cardinals and their fans, the hard part is waiting to hear what Warner finally decides.