The Cost of Contending

We all know the story of Kurt Warner. He started at quarterback for only a single year in college, playing for an unheralded Northern Iowa Panthers program. Unsurprisingly, the NFL failed to come calling in 1994. After missing a year of competitive play, Warner never gave up his efforts at getting a shot at the big time. The hard work officially resumed in 1995, with the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers. After three successful years there, Warner officially returned to the 100-yard field, signing a deal with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, which started with him spending time in the NFL’s minor league, NFL Europe, playing for the Amsterdam Admirals in 1998. That year, Warner finally got to don an NFL uniform, putting on the blue and gold of the Rams.

After a year as a backup, an injury to St. Louis starter Trent Green gave Warner his big shot in 1999. He took advantage of it. Rarely, if ever, did there appear to be a notion that Warner was the type of player whose experience and ability should have been greatly questioned. Of course, the 1999 Rams, quarterbacked by Warner, won Super Bowl XXXIV, made the playoffs again the next year, and, two years later, nearly came back to win Super Bowl XXXVI until The Legend of Adam Vinatieri sparked a dominant string of New England Patriots teams.

Warner never seemed to even come close to playing like he did for those three years again… until 2008. For four seasons after leaving St. Louis at the end of the 2003 campaign, Warner was a mediocre backup-turned-starter for the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals. In 2008, however, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt elected to use Warner behind center to start the season. For the fans in Glendale, this was possibly the greatest decision in the history of the hapless franchise. Starting every game for only the third time in his career (with the other two full seasons ending in Super Bowl berths), Warner played like the star he was on those Rams teams, completing a career-high 598 passes for 4,583 yards. He threw 30 touchdowns with only 14 interceptions while putting up a passer rating of 96.9, a number surpassed in his career only by his three magical seasons in St. Louis. Most importantly, he’s provided the city of Phoenix their second and third playoff wins since the Cardinals moved to the city in 1988.

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Warner’s an experienced and proven playoff quarterback, and, with Arizona holding home field for their conference final against Philadelphia, the Cardinals franchise stands a very good chance of making their first ever Super Bowl appearance. The Phoenix fans better enjoy these wins while they can, because they’ll be the last the Cardinals see for a while. While Warner’s undoubtedly a fantastic story, the Cardinals are killing their future by not giving an NFL-ready young quarterback a shot. Matt Leinart was the 10th overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. Then again, you’d probably heard of him long before that. He was the superstar quarterback for a dominant USC Trojans team that won two national championships with him under center, and barely fell short of a third in losing to Texas in a nail-biting 2006 Rose Bowl – one of the greatest college football games of all-time. Many, myself included, believed that the Cardinals truly lucked out with Leinart falling into their hands. They still haven’t given the talented arm the shot that he deserves.

I’ll fully grant that adapting from college to the NFL as a quarterback, no matter how good you are, is an arduous task. It appears that the Cardinals failed to recognize that. Leinart got a largely unheard-of 12 games in his rookie campaign, accumulating 2,547 passing yards with 11 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 74.0 passer rating. Though the numbers weren’t fantastic, they were perfectly acceptable for a rookie. In 2007, the Cardinals were already showing distrust in Leinart when a fractured collarbone in early October ended his season. Warner won a training camp battle to gain the starting quarterback spot in 2008, and the team that had seemingly forever built for the future finally started winning.

Though I seriously doubt that any Cardinals fans, if there were any prior to November of 2008, are lamenting coach Ken Whisenhunt’s decision to go with Warner at this point, this one winning season has prevented them from creating a prolonged string of winning campaigns in the future. If nobody noticed, the Cardinals’ division was awful this year, and the team likely would have missed the playoffs without their softball divisional schedule. They probably won’t be back next year.

Even if Leinart started at quarterback this season, there’s a solid chance that the Cardinals would have entered the crapshoot known as January football, regardless. The team’s talent extends past the quarterback position, and Leinart’s arm, which threw for at least 3,322 yards three times in college, certainly has the strength to locate star Cardinals receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

All Matt Leinart needs are some snaps to get acclimated to the NFL. In a division where he would have been able to win some games on a team with extremely capable players catching the ball, an initial playoff experience would have come this year. With the Cardinals waiting until next year, and hopefully not any longer, their real chances at fielding a consistent winning team are sinking as Kurt Warner keeps moving the team up the field.

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