- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- To get to the Arizona Cardinals' headquarters, you get off Highway 10 and ride one mile up Warner Road. The road wasn't named for new Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, but by the end of the football season, he might be able to claim it.
Warner's road to Arizona is a twisted one. He was the ultimate Cinderella story: a forgotten journeyman given the chance to be an MVP in St. Louis when Trent Green blew out his knee in 1999. Then, he hit a drought. Injuries and the inability to win when he was healthy ended his stay in St. Louis. He resurrected his career to a certain degree with the Giants last year.
"How many times has a two-time MVP ever left his team and gone somewhere else?" Warner said. "There is always that question, 'Why is he not in St. Louis anymore?' The Cardinals are getting the guy they wanted to get."
At 35, Warner still believes. He comes to a Cardinals squad that is arguably the sleeper team to watch in the NFC. Defensively, the Cardinals look hungry and talented. They are loaded at wide receiver. They have a coach, Dennis Green, who produced playoff team after playoff team in Minnesota.
It's hard to imagine Warner being as effective as he was when leading St. Louis to Super Bowls following the 1999 and 2001 seasons. When healthy, he could be counted on for 300 yards passing a game and 35 touchdowns a season. He had a swagger. Not mobile, Warner waited until the last second for the receiver to get open. A defender would barrel into him as Warner released the ball. What followed was a touchdown and a crunching sound. Warner took the hits, but as time dragged on in St. Louis, the hits took their toll. He developed a chronic right thumb problem.
On Saturday night against the Dallas Cowboys, some of the old Warner memories were revisited.
In the second quarter, he spotted his new favorite target, Larry Fitzgerald, running a deep inside route. Warner fired. Cowboys linebacker Demarcus Ware made a belated rush to get Warner, but the ball was already heading to Fitzgerald for what ended up as a 31-yard touchdown pass. Warner took a shot and came up shaking his left arm. The hit caused a bruise on the inside of his left arm.
Warner shook it off and went to the sideline. Touchdown passes sometimes come with pain and Warner is willing to endure it for six points.
"I think that's kind of the nature of the beast," Warner said. "I have confidence in the receivers to be where you expect them to be. That's the kind of receivers we have, ones who can run fast and hit routes so I just have to make the read quickly and get the ball out."
In a little more than a quarter in the preseason opener, Warner teased Cardinals fans and Green with some glimpses of the old Warner. He was Warner-like efficient, completing 14 of 19 for 151 yards and a touchdown. His quarterback rating was 114.1, similar to the numbers he put up during 1999-'01 in St. Louis.
Green's offense isn't like Mike Martz's in St. Louis, so the Cards aren't asking for Warner to completely be the old Warner. Green signed Warner for several reasons, primarily to be a field general who wins. The flashy statistics don't mean a lot to him.
"I don't think we are that type of team," Green said of the need for a 4,000-yard quarterback. "I think we are going to be a much improved offensive team. I think this team is going to be a team that has to rely on defense to set things up, to create some turnovers. We are still a year away from being that kind of explosive team. I think we just need a little more balance across the board."
Warner is the face of the new, improved Cardinals, and this face seems more legit than the Emmitt Smith look of the past two years. Smith came to the Cardinals as a ticket attraction. Unfortunately, the team lacked anything close to what Smith had in Dallas, so it lost. Over the past couple of years, the Cardinals have been assembling a talented cast of receivers: Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson.
Yet, for all of the recent offensive additions, the soul of this club is defense.
These Cardinals have a new, meaner-looking bird on the front of the helmet. It doesn't fully capture the ferocity the defense shows on the field. Second-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was one of the stars for Green last year. He took the defense from 26th in 2003 to 12th last year with an aggressive new style.
Although some of the success is attributable to creative five-man fronts and speed, the Cardinals defense is more about attitude and accountability. These guys fly to the football. During Saturday's 13-11 victory over the Cowboys, they attacked Drew Bledsoe and disrupted the offense.
"We are trying to develop a tougher attitude," Pendergast said. "The guys played hard and they flew around last year. Now, we want to be more of a tough-minded defense. We want 11 guys to play with heart. We define heart as hustle, execution, attitude, respect and technique. The guys bought into that. With heart, you are going to fly around to the football."
The Cardinals' 12th-place ranking last year on defense was quite an accomplishment. It happened in the NFC West, which had two top offenses -- St. Louis and Seattle. Since then, the Cardinals have released former first-rounder Wendell Bryant, demoted another first-rounder Calvin Pace and worked younger players into the rotation. Darnell Dockett developed into a top defensive tackle as a rookie at the three-technique. Karlos Dansby took the season to become a playmaker as a strongside linebacker. Bertrand Berry became the star by earning a Pro Bowl spot after a 14½ sack season. David Macklin, a corner, and Adrian Wilson, safety, did well in the secondary.
"I think the Cardinals defenses of the past depended more on speed than the personnel," Wilson said. "Now, we have the personnel to build the defense. I just think the coaches do a great job combing everybody's strength. Coach Pendergast likes the speed off the edge."
The Cardinals defense got better and deeper in the offseason. Cornerback Antrel Rolle, the team's first-round pick this year, came off the bench in the second quarter against the Cowboys and made four plays in a series. He made two good tackles and broke up a couple of passes, including one that went deep. Chike Okeafor is a hustling defensive end with 8½ sack ability but the technique to hold up against the run. The Cardinals like the playmaking ability of weakside linebacker Orlando Huff, who, like Okeafor, came from Seattle. Robert Griffith is a steadying force at safety next to Wilson.
"These guys have playmaking ability," Berry said. "That's the one thing you can never have enough of on defense. These are proven playmakers. Whenever you can bring in two guys [Huff and Okeafor] from division winners, it helps our team. I think Chike's the big sleeper. He's been very productive, and I think he will take a little bit of the blocking pressure off me."
Pendergast improved the Cardinals' third-down defense from 32th to fourth. Sacks rose from 20 to 38. The Cardinals are gearing for more sacks and more forced turnovers in the second year in the system.
"The guys have a better feel for what [Pendergast] wants to get done," Berry said. "We have the attitude of aggression and making plays and being physical. We are taking the fight to the offense. We are not waiting on our heels and waiting for the offense to do something so we can react. Our defense is kinda like a full-court press in football."
But a full-court press and success on defense don't produce wins if Warner can't get the passing offense going. Go ask the Bears what a good defense can do without a solid passing attack. The Cardinals' success on defense should be a given. It's up to Warner to make it work on offense if the Cardinals want to contend in the NFC West.
"There is always that question that I'm sure teams thinking about me were hoping they are getting the guy who has won two MVPs and went to two Super Bowls," Warner said. "I think so. Of course, I'm always biased. The way I feel throwing the football right now is good. I don't feel there is anything that changed in my game. I can still throw the deep ball. I'm still as accurate as before. I wasn't really a mobile guy, so if I lose a step, so what."
The Cardinals are more solid at tackle with Leonard Davis and Oliver Ross than the Giants team Warner played for last year, but there are concerns in the middle of the line. Center Alex Stepanovich is sidelined after wrist surgery on his snapping hand, and even if he comes back at the start of the season, he may have to play guard. Replacing him is Nick Leckey, who is inexperienced. Guards Reggie Wells and Jeremy Bridges aren't big names.
"We think we can play real good and solid on the line but we are so young there," Green said.
Teams will try to test that middle to get to Warner. He's ready. He knows the Cardinals' road to the playoffs goes through him. A road to the facility already bears his name. Now, it's up to him to make that road popular.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Cardinals have a strong defense, but QB Kurt Warner's impact on the offense could determine the team's fortune this season.