To Kurt Warner, the most important part of the contract he signed with the Cardinals in February wasn’t the $4 million in yearly salaries or the $3 million signing bonus. It was the length of the deal — three years.
Even before Warner agreed to return to the Cards in 2006 he believed he had at least three good years remaining in his career, and probably more. That hasn’t changed over the past six months.
His circumstances have.
Matt Leinart resides in the locker next to Warner’s in the team’s Tempe complex, but Leinart looms much larger over Warner in practical terms. Taken 10th overall in April’s draft, the team’s first-round pick is the quarterback of the future, a fact Warner understands completely.
The question is: Exactly when does that future arrive?
Barring injury, Warner will be the Cardinals’ quarterback in 2006 while Leinart sits. Beyond that, the wishes of the organization and the wishes of Warner may not coincide.
“Until something shows me or someone tells me I can’t play this position better than anybody else, then I am assuming it is my job and it’s my job to keep,” Warner said, “and I don’t plan on losing it.
“I believe if I play the game as well as I can play, I am as good as anybody — and not just in the organization but anywhere in the league. You can’t go to work wondering, ‘This guy makes so much money,’ or ‘This guy was drafted here,’ because it would kill you.”
Warner, who turned 35 in June, believes he still has the same skills as when he won two MVP trophies in St. Louis. His personal statistics were solid last year and in some ways remarkable given the Cardinals’ lack of a running game.
Leinart may be the team’s poster boy heading into the season. But Warner is its quarterback.
“Everybody on this team,” said wide receiver Anquan Boldin, “knows Kurt is the guy right now.”
The New York Giants acquired Eli Manning on draft day 2004. Soon after, the team signed Warner as a free agent.
Warner walked into that situation knowing Manning might play sooner rather than later. But after Warner won the starting job, he was shocked and upset that the Giants slid Manning into the lineup nine games into the season with New York sporting a winning record.
The quarterback transition between veteran and the future-in-waiting often isn’t easy.
The Chargers drafted Philip Rivers in 2004, anticipating he would start. Drew Brees, the incumbent, was a second-round pick in 2001 who hadn’t panned out. But when Rivers went unsigned for most of training camp, the Chargers had no choice but to play Brees.
Brees turned into a Pro Bowl quarterback. Rivers was chained to the bench for two seasons before Brees was all but pushed out the door as a free agent this offseason. Rivers now starts in San Diego. Brees went to New Orleans.
“It’s a different situation, because they were bringing in Philip to take my job,” said Brees, who says the words with a hint of bitterness. “The Cardinals are bringing in Leinart to be the future of the organization.”
Compare that to the switch the Bengals made from Jon Kitna to Carson Palmer.
First-year Bengals coach Marvin Lewis didn’t want the excuse of a rookie quarterback handed to his team, so Palmer sat in 2003. Kitna led the Bengals to an 8-8 record (from 2-14 in 2002) and played so well he won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award.
Kitna’s reward? Lewis named Palmer the 2004 starter in March.
Kitna was admittedly disappointed, even though the decision had been anticipated by everyone for weeks. Then he became the ultimate team player.
“The competition is one thing, but for the team to know who the guy is going to be when opening day comes rolling around is the most important thing,” Kitna said at the time. “Then everybody understands, if there is a question or a problem, who to go to as far as the quarterback is concerned.”
Cards vice president of football operations Rod Graves said he spoke to Warner shortly before the draft when it became clear the Cardinals might have a chance to take a quarterback in the first round. He also called Warner right after the team selected Leinart and has spoken to him on the subject a couple of times since.
“(Kurt) still knows he is our quarterback,” Graves said. “He also knows this is a game of competition. If he is not performing, he knows his job could be lost to Matt Leinart somewhere down the road.”
The first player mentioned during a Cardinals radio commercial on the team’s flagship station isn’t Warner, or even running back Edgerrin James. It’s Leinart.
Leinart is the one getting magazine shoots and national publicity. And after missing a chunk of training camp, Leinart proved himself adept on the field in preseason games. Leinart finished the preseason completing 29 of 47 passes for 314 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His passing rating was an exceptional 95.5.
But Warner was better, completing 33 of 45 passes for 381 yards, three touchdowns and one interception for a rating of 111.4.
“I am glad Matt is here,” said Warner, whose 85.8 quarterback rating last season was the best for the franchise since Neil Lomax’s 86.7 mark in 1988. “But I feel I am in a position to help this team win more than anybody else.”
Leinart acknowledges it will be tough not to play after being at the center of a national championshipcaliber team the past three years at the University of Southern California.
“Going into the NFL, you know you have to wait your turn,” Leinart said.
Leinart, who sat behind Palmer at USC before getting his chance to play in college, has discussed with Palmer what it’s like sitting as a rookie. Palmer endorses the idea, telling Leinart it prepared him to be a starter.
Leinart avoids mentioning a timetable for when he hopes to be on the field.
“You can’t put a time on that,” he said.
So Leinart will soak up what he can from Warner. That’s OK with Warner, who emphasizes that he doesn’t want to hold anything back from his future heir.
Warner, who hasn’t played a full season since 2001, knows he could miss a few games. If that happens, he said, he wants Leinart to be able to step in and win games, so that when Warner returns the Cardinals will still be in the playoff hunt.
There is a certain awkward element to how this plays out.
“Any way you look at it, you have guys in here trying to take other guys’ jobs,” Leinart said. “You can be the best of friends but you are still competing for that one position. That’s just the name of the game.”
Warner’s fire toward that competition hasn’t dimmed. His admittedly biased view of himself is he was never that elusive and never had a rocket arm, the kind of assets robbed by age. Warner said he still has the accuracy that made him an MVP, and he is a smarter player.
Warner is the starter for now. But with Leinart casting a long shadow behind him, the clock is ticking.
“If Matt or John (Navarre) or someone else they bring in here is a better football player than I am, then I have to accept that as a man,” Warner said. “If I can’t, I have to get out of the game because those are the facts of the matter.
“I will compete every day to let the organization know when they signed this threeyear deal, that it wasn’t a mistake. I want to be here for three years; I can help this team for three years. Then I can pass it to whoever is next.”