Tough decision awaits Cards' Warner
Veteran quarterback mum on future, but retirement could be around the corner
TEMPE, Ariz. -- To get to the Arizona Cardinals' team headquarters, you exit Interstate 10 at, you guessed it, Warner Road. Makes sense since quarterback Kurt Warner is the place where all the Cardinals' playoff hopes intersect.
The Warner Road thing is a coincidence. Nobody here has named a street for him -- yet -- but they should, and perhaps will if Warner can help pull off consecutive Super Bowl runs. After all, there's a chance Warner's next game might be his last.
A season ago, the Cardinals shocked most of the league by reaching Super Bowl XLIII. They would have won the thing too if Santonio Holmes' cleats had been a shoe size bigger. Instead, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver somehow toe tapped just inside the right edge of the end zone as he caught the go-ahead, last-minute touchdown pass.
Holmes got Disney World and a bear hug with the Lombardi Trophy. Warner, who would have been the game's MVP (377 yards and three touchdowns), got a year older.
Warner, 38, isn't ancient, but nobody will be stunned if he walks/limps away from the NFL soon. He has seriously considered retirement in the past and, depending on how this postseason shakes out, he will seriously consider it again.
The Cardinals are at home Sunday against the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round, but after that, who knows? Would a one-and-done scenario prompt Warner to return for a 13th season? Would another playoff march deep into January convince him to call it quits?
Warner isn't saying -- at least, not in definitive terms. His right arm still works in wondrous ways, but every pass attempt comes with a price tag attached. He completed 66.1 percent of his passes and threw for 26 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards in the Cardinals' 10-win regular season. But there have been concussions and enough ice bags and MRI machines to make him wonder how much longer he wants to do this.
Money isn't an issue. A $15 million signing bonus and another $4 million in base pay on his last contract took care of that. Plus, he has seven children, a wife and all sorts of civic and faith-based causes. Just because he might retire from the NFL doesn't mean he'll quit working.
Warner is in the fourth quarter of his career, but he can still play and play at a level that amazes. He has been the ultimate success story: an undrafted free agent/grocery store bagger who won a Super Bowl with one team (St. Louis Rams) and almost won one with another team (Cards).
His passing numbers are borderline obscene, especially after factoring in The Lost Years (2002-2006), when Warner was hurt, benched and/or relegated to backup.
Think about it: No other player has thrown for 14,000 career yards for two teams. And of the 14 quarterbacks inducted into the Hall of Fame in the past 25 years, only Dan Marino has more 300-yard games than Warner and only Steve Young has a higher career completion percentage. None of those 14 QBs reached 30,000 passing yards in fewer games (123) than Warner.
"As far as the Hall of Fame question, I definitely think Kurt's a Hall of Famer,'' said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. "If you look at statistically what he's done, he matches up with quarterbacks who are already in the Hall of Fame. And he's surpassed a lot of those guys.''
Those Lost Years -- near the end of his St. Louis career, his season with the New York Giants as a sometime starter and sometime caddie for Eli Manning, the beginning of his Cardinals career -- might be one of the reasons Warner returns for 2010. Undrafted free-agent quarterbacks don't usually breathe this sort of rarified air, so maybe Warner wants to hold onto the oxygen mask for one more year.
Whenever it ends, Warner won't have to look far for testimonials. Standing at the front of the line will be Whisenhunt.
"The one thing that really stands out about Kurt is that he's done it with two different organizations,'' said Whisenhut. "It's very difficult when you're at the top of your game and then you go into the down part that he did when he was in New York, when he had the struggles and everybody said he couldn't play and that he was done. To fight back out of it, to come in here and compete as a backup and compete for a spot -- and willingly do that -- and then win the spot and then play the way he did speaks a lot about his character, his love for the game and his intensity.''
Warner isn't ready to pose for a bronze bust just yet. Sure, the Cardinals phoned it in against the Packers in the regular-season finale. But Warner and handfuls of other Arizona starters barely played, and Whisenhunt kept the game plan as vanilla as a pint of Haagen-Dazs.
And remember, last year the Cardinals didn't exactly enter the playoffs on a roll (they lost two of their last three, four of their last six). But look what happened: a wild-card win at home, a divisonal win on the road, an NFC championship win at home.
If nothing else, Arizona has defied recent Super Bowl loser history. Since 2001, only two teams have reached the playoffs after losing the Super Bowl the previous season. Seattle did it in 2006 and now the Cardinals have done it in 2009.
There are all sorts of theories and reasons for the post-Super Bowl loser syndrome. The short list: tougher strength of schedule, injuries, coaching changes, five fewer weeks of an offseason program, the emotional toll of losing a Super Bowl, roster changes and getting every opponent's best shot.
The Cardinals had all those things (for example, Warner missed time with a concussion) and more.
"For us, early in the season this year, we were uptight because we were trying to live up to the NFC champion logo,'' said Whisenhunt. "We didn't play our best. But we fought through it.''
So here are Warner and the Cardinals. They face a Packers team that actually has a better record (11-5) and has won seven of its past eight games, including the victory at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday. The good news for Arizona: The Cardinals haven't lost two in a row all season. And the old man -- Warner -- won't be on the bench.
With a playoff win, it could be the start of something special for the Cardinals. With a loss it also could be the end of something special. The end of Warner's career.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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