Kurt Warner deserves better

Kurt Warner deserves better

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Two years ago, Kurt Warner was the best quarterback in football. Now, there are some who claim he's not even the best quarterback on his team.

Two years ago, Kurt Warner was riding high after winning his second MVP award. Now, he's riding the pine following last week's opening loss to the Giants.

Two years ago, Kurt Warner could do nothing wrong. Now, it seems as though he can do nothing right.

When Trent Green went down with a serious knee injury in a 1999 preseason game against the Chargers, the St. Louis Rams had to think they were in some serious trouble. Looking over their depth chart, former Arena Football League standout Kurt Warner, who had all of four career completions on his NFL stat sheet at the time, was now the Rams' starting quarterback.

Clearly, the optimism that typically accompanies the start of every football season instantly disappeared for Rams fans when they learned that this unproven AFL quarterback would be their team's new triggerman. Everybody in St. Louis was excited about the 29-year-old Green after he'd impressed in limited action for the Redskins the year before.

And now they had to watch Kurt Warner? Who the hell was this guy?

Of course, by the end of January everybody knew exactly who Kurt Warner was. He was the league MVP. He was the Super Bowl MVP. He was a world champion. And, as an added bonus, he was a damn nice guy.

In short, Kurt Warner went from a nobody backup in August to the biggest somebody in football five months later. Then in 2001, the former Iowa Barnstormer star would again lead the Rams to the Super Bowl while also earning his second league MVP award in three years.

Warner's name was now being cataloged with some of the all-time greats, and why not? His QB ratings for his first three years in the league were unfathomable: 109.2, 98.3 and 101.4. He became only the second player in NFL history to total more than 40 touchdown tosses in a single season (Dan Marino did it twice) by reaching the end zone 41 times in 1999. He holds the record for passing yards in his first four NFL starts with 1,217. His 4,830 yards in 2001 rank second in league history behind Marino's 5,084 in 1984. He tallied nine 300-yard passing games in both 1999 and 2001, which momentarily tied him with Marino and Warren Moon in the NFL record books before Rich Gannon surpassed everybody with 10 300-yard performances last season. He is only the sixth player to ever win a pair of league MVP awards.

But Warner was best known for guiding football's most explosive offense to a Super Bowl victory, another Super Bowl appearance and a 35-8 regular-season record in his first 43 career starts.

First and foremost, Kurt Warner was known as a winner.

Unfortunately, his mojo ran out last year when a broken pinkie and later a broken hand limited him to just three touchdowns and 11 interceptions in seven games, six of which were starts. And in those half dozen starts, the man who'd only lost eight of his first 43 NFL starts went 0-6.

For most quarterbacks, an 0-6 record would begin to feast on whatever job security they once had, but Warner was different. After all he'd accomplished in his first three years with the Rams, you'd think his starting gig would be safe.

Well, maybe that would've been the case if it weren't for Marc Bulger. If it weren't for Bulger, Warner wouldn't have been featured of the cover of Sports Illustrated's 2003 NFL preview issue alongside a headline that read, "Under Fire." If it weren't for Bulger, we wouldn't have heard talk this offseason about the Rams possibly cutting their two-time MVP quarterback. If it weren't for Bulger, Warner may very well be starting this Sunday against the 49ers. If it weren't for Bulger, I certainly wouldn't be writing this column.

But it's impossible to simply ignore the flawless Kurt Warner impersonation the 26-year-old Bulger delivered when he took over as the St. Louis quarterback last season. At the time, the Rams were 0-5 and all Bulger did was lead his team back to an even .500 by winning his first five starts and throwing for 1,496 yards with 12 touchdowns versus only four interceptions.

When Warner was healthy enough to start again in week 12, though, Bulger hit the bench and immediately watched the Rams' playoff hopes circle the drain in a 20-17 loss to Washington. A 10-3 defeat to the Eagles the following week ended Warner's season for good after he suffered a broken hand. Bulger then threw for 319 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over the Cards before his own season ended prematurely in week 16 due to injury after completing his only pass attempt of the day for 11 yards in a game the Rams would eventually lose.

The final tally screamed quarterback controversy, with Warner losing all six of his starts and Bulger winning his six full starts. The Rams, meanwhile, ended the year at 7-9 and, for the first time since 1999, they were out of the playoffs.

And thus began the talk of Warner possibly being cut to open up the starting job for Bulger, who hadn't even attempted a single NFL pass before his week-six victory over the then-undefeated Raiders. But the Rams displayed confidence in their fallen hero -- "Hey, he was injured. Marc did a great job but Kurt's still our guy" -- by picking up his bulky $6 million option this summer.

Warner showed his gratitude by flashing his MVP form during the preseason, completing 23 of 26 passes for 198 yards in three games. Warner, it seemed, was back, and with his apparent resurgence, the talk of Bulger taking over in St. Louis faded to an indistinct whisper.

But Warner lost his newfound job security just as swiftly as he regained it last weekend by fumbling six times, losing three, and tossing an interception in the 23-13 loss to the Giants. He missed several open receivers, managed the clock poorly and held onto the ball for too long, which helps explain the six fumbles. Not to mention the six sacks the Giants defense recorded.

Yeah, it's ugly, especially when you tag a performance like that onto last season's 0-6 catastrophe. But it turns out the guy was "foggy," suffering a concussion on the Rams' second pass play of the game. Said head coach Mike Martz following the loss, "[Warner] just wasn't himself. He looked confused when you gave him a play, and I shouldn't have played him. I regret playing him." He later added that Warner made five errors in judgment on his first seven pass plays. "It's just not like him," Martz said.

Despite the concussion, though, Warner claims he's ready to play this Sunday, that his symptoms have disappeared. "As long as the doctors clear me," he said, "I'll be ready to go."

But Martz isn't ready to put Warner back on the field, instead electing to start Bulger. When asked whether Warner would have his job back when he returned, Martz said, "I don't want to get into all of that right now. Let's just take it one week at a time at this point."

Hmm... . Sounds like the QB controversy has been resurrected in St. Louis. And even if Martz never makes the permanent switch to Bulger, the fact that he's already put Warner's job security in question after one game is a joke.

Look, I understand that the Rams have lost Warner's last seven starts, and I also understand that he made some debilitating mistakes against the Giants -- four turnovers are tough to overcome. But the guy had a freaking concussion, for crying out loud. On top of that, his finger wasn't completely healed when he returned last year.

But even if you discount the fact that he's been playing hurt during this rough stretch, shouldn't a guy who's led your team to two Super Bowls and a 35-8 record over three seasons be given a leash that extends beyond one poor game? Doesn't a two-time MVP deserve the benefit of the doubt?

After all Kurt Warner's done for the Rams, shouldn't the Rams give him more time to prove himself?

Let's not forget that in 2001, just two years ago, Warner threw for 4,830 and 36 touchdowns. And now just seven games later Martz seems willing to hand his team over to a guy with seven career starts? Last I checked, Warner still owned the highest career QB rating in league history at 98.2, and his 66.6 lifetime completion percentage also tops the record books.

Forgive me, but I'm not so quick to just assume that Kurt Warner is washed up. Not until I see more proof.

Mike Martz apparently is, though. Otherwise, when asked if the starting job belonged to Warner when he returned from the concussion, Martz would've immediately said, "Absolutely. This is Kurt Warner's team." That's what you say about guys you believe in, guys who've broken records for you, guys who've won the biggest games for you.

Bottom line: You stand by the guys who've gotten the job done. At least, that's what I've always believed but apparently, I'm in the minority.

Of the 13,714 people who responded to a recent ESPN.com poll, 74.6% said Bulger is a better QB fit for the Rams than Warner. Excuse me? Was that 74.6%? That's 10,230 people.

I don't get it. Maybe I'm showing more patience and loyalty with Warner than I would if I were running the Rams. Maybe there's no room in professional sports for that kind of faith and respect. But I still have a hard time accepting that everything Kurt Warner accomplished in 1999, 2000 and 2001 -- all those victories, the Super Bowl championship, the MVPs, the records -- can so easily be erased, forgotten, dismissed... in just seven games.

Perhaps Mike Martz needs to take some responsibility here. Whenever Warner's behind center, Martz ignores the best player on his team, Marshall Faulk. It's like he forgets the guy who scored a record 26 touchdowns three years ago is actually lined up in his backfield. Case in point, Warner threw the ball 54 times last weekend.

Faulk had nine carries for 28 yards. 

Martz also called this pass-heavy nonsense last year when Warner was healthy, and look where it got the Rams. But with Bulger at the helm, Martz again handed the ball off to his horse. Check out these numbers:

Faulk with Warner (5 games): 57 rushes for 217 yards
Faulk with Bulger (5 games): 107 rushes for 594 yards

Fifty-seven carries... in five games? Maybe if Martz would've given Warner even a little help from the running game last season, the Rams wouldn't have started 0-5. Meanwhile, in week seven against the Seahawks with Bulger on the field, Faulk had 32 rushes for 183 yards. In fact, his only three 100-yard games of the year came in Bulger's first three starts.

Something tells me fantasy owners will want to have Faulk active this week against San Francisco.

Then again, maybe things would've been different last Sunday had Martz just elected to kick field goals on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter rather than going for it on fourth down -- and, in turn, failing to convert on both attempts. Or maybe the knucklehead should have taken Warner out of the game the minute they realized he had a concussion. "I shouldn't have played him. I regret playing him."

Gee, ya think?

Replacing a career disappointment who continues to underachieve is one thing. A guy like Tim Couch deserved to lose his job, especially considering the way Kelly Holcomb was throwing the ball. 

But Kurt Warner's case should be different. Maybe this is more about Bulger earning a chance to start than Warner losing his job, but would the Dolphins have replaced Marino if he put together a sub-par seven-game stretch? Will Mike Sherman bench Brett Favre if the Packers start 0-7? And please, don't say that I'm exaggerating, that Warner doesn't compare to guys like Marino and Favre.

Because in the three years leading up to last season, he was just as good as Marino, Favre, Joe Montana and anybody else who ever played the position. 

And he deserves the kind of respect that those guys received.

Blaming Kurt Warner for the Rams' troubles is narrow-minded. Benching him so hastily would just be foolish.

Questions/comments? Send all e-mails to jcodding@bullz-eye.com.