“Anytime a veteran player has had great success and then not had it, it’s always something you admire, to see him come back to that level again,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Kurt has never been afraid to work.”
Only one other quarterback has taken two teams to the Super Bowl: Craig Morton. The main reason for that bit of trivia is that teams won’t give up on a Super Bowl quarterback until they are absolutely sure he is done. Two teams were sure Warner was done: the Rams and the Giants.
Don’t forget the Cardinals benched Warner repeatedly over the past four seasons. While healthy, Warner once sat behind the immortal Josh McCown. To start the 2006 season, Warner fumbled 11 times and threw five interceptions in a four-game span before getting benched for Matt Leinart. Whisenhunt stuck with Leinart to open the 2007 season, and only fully committed to Warner when Leinart suffered a broken collarbone.
Warner almost didn’t even get a chance to pilot this team. Eight days before the season, after Leinart imploded during an exhibition game, Whisenhunt says he “stayed up all night” before settling on Warner as his starter. In return, Warner gave his coach his first 16-game season since 2001 — the last time he was in the Super Bowl.
It’s not just amazing that Warner has bounced back; it’s how far. Warner finished second in the NFL in passing yards, third in passer rating, and third in touchdowns thrown. He was an MVP favorite until Arizona’s late regular-season swoon, and has played his best football in the playoffs, with eight touchdowns and two picks. Warner’s superlative effort now places him back in the Super Bowl, where he is this week’s biggest attraction and best story.
The ability to accurately hit your target is the most important and underrated skill a quarterback can possess. It might be Warner’s defining trait.
Drew Brees, a fellow Pro Bowler, is an unabashed Warner fan. “He’s very accurate. He’s got great anticipation.”
Completion percentage is great, but Warner also throws the ball to the right spot to allow his playmakers to run wild. Many of Anquan Boldin’s big plays are passes near the line of scrimmage where Warner hits him in perfect stride. It’s not always the biggest arm that wins, but the one that throws a catchable a ball. Warner's receivers appreciate it.
“He has a real good touch,” wideout Onrea Jones said. “He puts passes into places where you want to catch it. If a defender is in front of you, he puts it behind to protect you.”
Watch enough Cardinals tapes, and you'll see one play repeat itself: Warner gets hammered by an on-rushing defender and still completes the pass. Most aging quarterbacks begin to “see the pass rush” after they have been hit too much. They lower their eyes to see where the next collision is coming from rather than keeping their eyes down field. Warner never takes his eyes off his receivers.
“He’s got such great toughness," Brees said. “He just stands in the pocket and delivers the football, no matter what is around him.”
When Warner has struggled in his career, this ability has eluded him. He’s occasionally appeared hesitant, which leads to big hits and fumbles. Warner has fumbled more than any other player in the past three seasons, but he’s yet to lose a fumble in the postseason.
It’s tough to pinpoint why Warner has improved so much this season in delivering while taking the big hit. It’s not like his offensive line is playing much better. Warner gets hit as much as he ever does. He just gets rid of the ball quicker.
“He gets rid of the ball so fast,” Steelers outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley said Tuesday.
Long-time Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith backed Woodley up.
“He doesn’t hold on to it, how quick he gets rid of the ball sets him apart," Smith said.
Combine that with three threats at the wide receiver position, and we have a tough challenge in front of us.”
Warner’s decisiveness comes from his confidence in his receivers. Larry Fitzgerald and Boldin inevitably make Warner look good. But just as important is Warner’s ability to know when the blitz is coming, and where it is coming from.
Smarts and anticipation
“He’s a smart guy, first and foremost,” Smith said. “So he knows where to go with the ball.”
Warner has always been a bright player, but his ability to dissect opposing defenses has improved with age. Many quarterbacks, such as Ben Roethlisberger, improvise as the play develops because they don’t know what’s coming. Warner sees the play happen before he takes the snap.
“He breaks down defenses. He knows what coverage you’re in. He knows who’s open. When you have a smart quarterback like that, it’s hard to stop him,” Woodley said, shaking his head.
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