Warner’s Astounding Career Could End in Hall of Fame
Warner very nearly didn’t have the chance to lead the Cardinals anywhere this year, winning the starting job just a week before the regular season opener. It is typical of what Allen Barra called in The Wall Street Journal “one of the most sensational and probably the strangest career of any great passer in NFL history.”
Warner has been overlooked throughout his career, sitting for most of his career at a Division I-AA college and waiting until he was 28 to start an NFL game. He’s been declared washed-up several times, but shocked the NFL again this year, leading the Cardinals—probably the worst franchise in the NFL—to their first Super Bowl ever.
Warner’s future is up in the air. There is a good chance that the Cardinals may let the free agent sign elsewhere to make room for backup quarterback Matt Leinart. Warner, who considered retiring after seeing teammate Anquan Boldin carted off the field in an early-season loss, may still choose to retire after the game. “Ultimately, I think God is going to make that decision for me,” he says.
He was signed by the Green Bay Packers out of college, but released at the end of training camp. Warner then spent a year working in a Hy-Vee grocery store while serving as a graduate assistant for UNI before returning to football with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. He led the team to ArenaBowl appearances in 1996 and 1997.
Also in 1997, Kurt married Brenda Carney Meoni and adopted her two children, one of whom had brain damage. Brenda encouraged Kurt to become a fundamentalist Christian, which Warner says is the reason for much of his success.
In 1998, Warner was signed by the St. Louis Rams—after he had to cancel a try-out with the Bears because a spider bit his throwing elbow—and assigned to NFL Europe for a year. Warner finally got his chance when the Rams’ starting quarterback, Trent Green, was injured in the preseason.
Warner, a complete unknown to NFL fans, took the league by storm, throwing for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns during an MVP season. He led the Rams to the Super Bowl, where he threw a game-winning 73-yard touchdown with under two minutes to play and was named MVP of the game.
“He is a family man and a man of God, an out-of-nowhere sensation whose story has been called too schmaltzy even for Hollywood,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Michael Silver. “But on the football field Kurt Warner is the quintessential quarterback, a cocksure leader who wants the ball in his hands when everything is hanging in the balance.”
Warner played four more seasons with the Rams, losing the 2001 Super Bowl as a heavy favorite. In his last two seasons, he struggled with injuries and lost his starting job. Seemingly washed-up, Warner signed with the Giants in 2004 and began the season 5-4 as a starter before being replaced by rookie Eli Manning. “By the end of the season,” writes Will Leitch in New York magazine, “it was clear: Eli Manning was the future, and Kurt Warner was toast.”
He signed with the Cardinals and spent three years battling for the starting job with Josh McCown and first-round draft pick Matt Leinart. Heading into this season, it looked like Leinart would be made the starter, but Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt made a last-minute decision to choose Warner.
“He’s probably going to the Hall of Fame even though he’s had only three years in which he started more than twelve games,” explains Will Leitch in New York magazine. “With any team that wasn’t perfectly suited to his talents, he collapsed.”
The Chicago Tribune’s Dan Pompei believes that Warner’s lack of success in many seasons was “out of his control.” He excelled playing in a spread offense with talented receivers, producing some of the greatest statistical seasons in NFL history. “If NFL teams ever had realized what Warner was and enhanced what he does best,” argues Pompei, “Warner very well could have had 10 or 12 great seasons by now.”
His career numbers pale in comparison to most Hall of Fame quarterbacks. During the season, the staff of Football Outsiders, which focuses on statistics to analyze the game, agreed that Warner is not a Hall-of-Famer.
“When their careers are all done, I think among ‘contemporaries’ of Warner, he’ll be behind: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Donovan McNabb, [Trent] Green, [Steve] McNair,” wrote Ned Macey. “I don’t think eight quarterbacks playing at the same time should ever make the HOF.”
Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock argues that statistics don’t fully explain the career of Kurt Warner, comparing him to Joe Namath, a quarterback with similarly spotty career who is in the Hall of Fame due mostly to winning Super Bowl III. Warner for his part has led two poorly-run franchises to the Super Bowl.
“Think about that. Kurt Warner guided Frontiere’s Rams to their first championship and now he has the laughingstock Cardinals on the brink of a title,” Whitlock writes. “And we’re debating whether Warner is Hall of Fame qualified?”