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Last Laugh U

Typical Kurt Warner. In late May, Cardinals coaches were still evaluating players following a minicamp three weeks earlier. Warner— Arizona's biggest winter signing, a former Super Bowl MVP whose jersey was already on sale throughout the Valley of the Sun— still believed he'd have to wait until training camp before officially taking the job from last year's starter, Josh McCown. Then, suddenly, Green held a press conference: Warner would be his new No.1. The QB competition was over. So whom did the two-time league MVP call? McCown, of course, to apologize. "I was like, for what?" says McCown. "But when you know Kurt Warner, it doesn't surprise you."

Warner, after all, is the guy who sent the coach who fired him in St. Louis an encouraging note when Mike Martz's Rams were struggling last season. He's the guy who wrote Bill Belichick a congratulatory letter after the Pats' most recent Super Bowl win, with no trace of bitterness that New England's title run began against Warner's Rams. This summer, Warner even called Giants boss Tom Coughlin, who benched him last November, just to say hello. Apparently, the 34-year-old QB is incapable of holding a grudge, whether it's against the 31 teams that don't think he's a starter, the analysts who say he fumbles too much or the fantasy GMs convinced his best years are behind him. "He thinks he's still a player," says Green. "We're going to have a chance to prove it."

Warner believes he already has. Last season, playing behind the Giants' patchwork offensive line, he went 5—4 as a starter and threw for more than 2,000 yards. Even three incomplete and substandard seasons removed from his last MVP season, Warner's 95.7 career passer rating puts him still second all time, behind Steve Young. To convince GMs and coaches that his client could still wing it, agent Mark Bartelstein sent teams a DVD of all 277 throws Warner made in 2004. Many saw a player who held the ball too long and was sacked a career-high 39 times in just nine games.

But Green and his staff spent five hours studying the DVD. When Warner managed to get a pass off, they saw him stick throws into the seam and hit receivers in stride, moments that were promisingly reminiscent of the three seasons from 1999 to 2001, when he threw for 12,612 yards and 98 touchdowns. But mostly what Green saw was a guy with enough left to be the coach's latest reclamation project (see box above). "My game is more a game of thinking than anything else," says Warner. "And that's something I haven't lost."

Which is exactly what the Cardinals offense requires. While his team floundered last season, Green grew increasingly annoyed as he watched the Colts and Vikings succeed with variations of systems he developed. He became so irritated that, with the 4—5 Cards in playoff contention and on a two-game winning streak, he benched McCown for three games. They lost all three. But Arizona's offensive futility-26th in scoring, 27th in total yards-couldn't be blamed entirely on its quarterbacks. The team's best receiver, Anquan Boldin, missed most of training camp and the first six games with a knee injury. Its top running back, Marcel Shipp, didn't play at all after breaking his leg and dislocating his ankle during the preseason. And the offensive line was so bad that Green fired line coach Bob Wylie in the middle of the season. "We just never got there," says Green, his understatement belying his impatience.

To ward off frustration this year, Green hired Chiefs tight ends coach Keith Rowen as his new offensive coordinator. Rowen, who worked with Green in Minnesota, has put together a hybrid scheme-part KC, part Minnesota-that uses the Chiefs' timing patterns on deeper 15-to-20-yard routes, the kind Green loved when he had Randy Moss and Cris Carter. This should make Warner happy, since the Chiefs offense is similar to what he ran with the Rams. The keys for Warner are throwing accurately and giving receivers a chance to gain yards after the catch. He demonstrated in New York that, when comfortable, he can still show why he has a 65.9 career completion percentage, the best in league history. "He's like a good jump shooter," says Dennis Thurman, the Ravens secondary coach. "If he gets his feet set and shoulders square, he's going to complete most of his passes."

On the other hand, the 2004 Warner model also showed he's prone to making mistakes when hurried. "He'll hang in there as long as he can to see if he can make a play," says Coughlin. "Almost to a fault." Warner was sacked 24 times in the final four games he started last season, mainly because teams realized bumping his receivers at the line and sending rushers up the middle or from his right side, where he could see them, made him hesitate.

Green hopes new right tackle Oliver Ross, who started 16 games for the Steelers last season, will calm Warner's nerves. And he expects 6'6'', 384-pound left tackle Leonard Davis, the No. 2 overall pick in 2001, to improve after converting from guard last season. For backfield balance, Green added secondrounder J.J. Arrington, a 2,000-yard rusher at Cal in 2004 whose 4.39 40 was the fastest of any back's at the combine.

But it's the promise of what Warner can do with his three receivers that makes the Cardinals offense a trendy fantasy favorite (see box at right). The 6'1'' Boldin (2003's Offensive Rookie of the Year), the 6'3'' Larry Fitzgerald (2004's No. 3 overall pick) and the 6'3'' Bryant Johnson (17th overall in 2003) are all physical enough and quick enough to beat press coverage, the most disruptive defense against timing offenses. Boldin, one of the NFL's most explosive receivers in and out of breaks, should especially thrive with an accurate quarterback. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, had 58 catches and 8 TDs as a rookie, while playing on a gimpy ankle and occasionally losing interest if he wasn't the primary receiver. Even McCown sees a juggernaut ready to be unleashed, although he's not too happy about it. "I just know how far we've come," he says. "And while I love Kurt and we're good friends, I do hate that I won't reap the benefits."

McCown got a glimpse of the near future during the May minicamp, on a play called 078 X Pump. Warner dropped back, tricked the safety into jumping on a deep corner route with a pump fake, spun left and hit Johnson, running a post 40 yards downfield, in the chest. But the games are not played seven-on-seven. A balanced offense and timing patterns may keep pressure off Warner, but he won't escape the expectations of his coach. Says Green: "We've got all the tools to give Kurt a chance to have an exceptional season."

If he doesn't, you can be sure he'll call to apologize.