The first two return trips, Kurt Warner was a one-man reunion tour. Win a Super Bowl, they’ll always love you.
Searching for candidates at the St. Louis Rams game last week, the kiss-cam had no problem at all finding a couple decked out in No. 13 Warner jerseys, proudly loyal to the quarterback who was a two-time NFL MVP during the franchise’s glory days.
Never mind that he took his last snap for St. Louis in the 2003 opener, was unceremoniously released before the 2004 season to make way for new blood, or that the dream season was a decade ago.
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“He’s always going to be a legend here,” said Rams defensive tackle Clifton Ryan, well aware of Warner’s legacy even though his rookie season was 2007. “They’ll probably do a movie about his life someday.”
Warner’s rise from Iowa grocery story clerk to Arena Football star to obscure backup to storybook leader of a championship team after replacing a highly paid starter lost for the season is almost too good to be true. Warner’s deciding touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce in the 2000 Super Bowl is a signature moment for the franchise.
“Some days it seems like it was just yesterday,” Warner said. “And other days it seems like it’s been a long time since I was there and we were kind of doing our thing.”
This time around, the vibe is undeniably different. Warner has found success beyond St. Louis, taking the Cardinals to the Super Bowl last season and nearly winning it.
Arizona (6-3) has a two-game lead in the NFC West and is 4-0 on the road entering Sunday’s game against the rebuilding, often-woeful Rams (1-8). Warner is well-established with a team that fled St. Louis for the desert a dozen years before his breakout season.
He’s the second player in NFL history to pass for more than 13,000 yards for two teams and doesn’t need memory lane quite so much.
Though effusive in his praise of a fan base that, unlike the Rams, has never cut him loose, Warner no longer considers it a homecoming game heading into his seventh rematch against the team that gave him his big shot.
He’s a Cardinal now, and proud of it. No. 13 is a hit in two cities.
“No question it’s a special place, but the meaning on the football field isn’t as big as the first couple times going back there,” the 38-yearold Warner said. “I love the place, I love the people, I love playing in that place.
“There’s always a special feeling going back to that. But I have been entrenched here with the Cardinals for so long that I definitely consider myself a Cardinal as opposed to maybe what it was like the first couple of times going back there.”
Maybe they don’t love him as much as they used to, either.
Perhaps it’s the Rams‘ lousy recent record – 6-35 the last three seasons – or the economy, but Warner’s third visit to St. Louis with the Cardinals has not spelled automatic box office success. The game was in danger of being blacked out on local TV, with 4,500 tickets remaining midweek.
The Warner factor ensures yet another mixed-bag crowd. Rams home games this year have been dependent for a while on a healthy visiting contingent, and players who used to be indignant no longer seem to mind.
Defensive end Leonard Little, the last remaining Ram from the 1999 title team, does not begrudge the hero worshipping.
“It’s understandable that guys are still wearing his jerseys and still cheering for him when he comes here,” Little said. “It doesn’t surprise me that fans still really love him and really care about him.”
Warner is close to unbeatable at the Edward Jones Dome, with a 25-4 record in 29 starts, including a perfect 4-0 in playoff games. No following that act.
Marc Bulger has been the starter since Warner sustained a concussion in the 2003 opener, the latest in a string of injuries that convinced management he was all but finished. Despite going to two Pro Bowls, Bulger is a symbol of the hard times the Rams have experienced in recent seasons.
Naturally, he’d like this to be just another game on the schedule as the Rams try to sustain momentum from a victory over the Lions that ended a 17-game losing streak, and the scare they threw into the unbeaten Saints last week in a five-point loss.
“Kurt obviously has history here and I got to play with him three or four years, so he’s a friend,” Bulger said. “We never like to face Kurt because he’s such a great player.”
Warner is the latest in a string of accomplished quarterbacks to test the Rams, especially at home. St. Louis is the first team in NFL history to face three straight unbeaten teams at home (Vikings, Colts, Saints), which means Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
Now comes Warner making his 41st consecutive start and on a roll. In the last two games, victories over Chicago and Seattle, he’s completed 73 percent of his passes for 601 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions.
Last week he became the 29th player to throw 200 touchdown passes and had his 51st 300-yard game, tying Dan Fouts for fourth on the NFL career list. Arizona shrugged off an early two-touchdown deficit against the Seahawks, outscoring them 21-3 in the second half.
“I get headaches,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “It’s the same kind of challenges we had last week where you’re dealing with an elite quarterback, all kinds of receivers and skill guys and a good, solid offensive line.”
The Cardinals have won five of six. After a few games, Warner believes players stopped worrying about living up to last year’s Super Bowl run.
“I think we got a little pressure on ourselves to try and do too much and try to be too much,” Warner said. “I just think we kind of settled in and got comfortable and started to relax a little bit.”
Resilient team, resilient quarterback.
“Not much surprises me with Kurt anymore,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said, “what he can do, and how special he is.”