On March 6, 2005 QB Kurt Warner, an unrestricted free agent, signed a one-year contract worth $4 million with the Arizona Cardinals. It was the latest stop in a rollercoaster career for the 33-year-old quarterback (he turned 34 prior to the season).
Warner went undrafted out of Northern Iowa in 1994, signed with the Green Bay Packers, was released, and played in the Arena Football League before getting another NFL shot with the St. Louis Rams, who assigned him first to NFL Europe. In 1999, after the team’s newly-acquired starter Trent Green was lost with a torn ACL in the preseason, Warner got his chance and had astonishing success, throwing for 4353 yards and 41 touchdowns as the Rams went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl. With a quick release and excellent accuracy, from 1999 to 2001 Warner received MVP honors twice as he led the NFL in passer rating and TD passes two times and yardage once. St. Louis went to the postseason all three years, winning two NFC titles and the one NFL Championship. In his two Super Bowl appearances, he threw for 414 and 365 yards, the two highest totals in the history of the contest at the time.
However Warner, who was 6’2” and 220 pounds, lacked mobility and was vulnerable to taking hits by opposing defenses, which began to take a physical toll. A broken hand sidelined him for five games in 2000 and in ’02 his performance dropped off significantly as he suffered from multiple hand and finger injuries; in seven games, he threw just three scoring passes and gave up 11 interceptions, and the Rams got off to an 0-5 start. Following a dismal opening-week performance in 2003, Warner was relegated to the bench behind Marc Bulger. He moved on to the New York Giants in 2004 and had a lackluster performance before losing his starting job to rookie Eli Manning. He had come under criticism for holding the ball too long, thus taking too many sacks (39 in nine starts). That the offensive line was poor and the receivers unimpressive didn’t help.
Warner met with the Bears before deciding to sign with Arizona and made clear that he expected to start for his new team, and Head Coach Dennis Green indicated that he would have the opportunity.
“Even though this is a one-year deal, I really don’t want to go anywhere else and would like nothing more than to end my career by helping the Cardinals win a championship,” said Warner upon his signing.
The Cardinals had not experienced much success since moving to Phoenix from St. Louis in 1988, finishing with just one winning record in 17 years through 2004. In Coach Green’s first year, they went 6-10 with Josh McCown as the primary starting quarterback.
Warner had a rough game in his first regular season start for the Cards, ironically enough against the Giants at the Meadowlands. They lost by a 42-19 score and were 0-3 before beating the 49ers for their first win, but it was with McCown behind center due to Warner having suffered a groin injury. Warner regained the starting job and tossed three touchdown passes in his return to St. Louis to face the Rams. Durability continued to be an issue and his season came to an end in the next-to-last game, at Houston, when he suffered a knee injury after completing all ten of his passes for 105 yards. Overall, Warner appeared in ten games and completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2713 yards and 11 touchdowns, giving up nine interceptions. Warner benefited from having the wide receiver tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin as targets for his passes. Both gained over 1400 receiving yards and Fitzgerald went to the Pro Bowl for the first time. However, the team won only twice in Warner’s starts on the way to a 5-11 tally.
The Cardinals were satisfied enough to sign Warner to a three-year deal, worth $22 million, although they also chose QB Matt Leinart, the Heisman Trophy winner out of USC, in the first round of the 2006 draft with an eye to the future.
The Cards started out the 2006 season with a win over San Francisco as Warner tossed three scoring passes, but he and the team faltered thereafter. By October, Leinart was starting. The team went 1-8 before winning four of its last seven contests to end up with a 5-11 record. Coach Green was fired and replaced by Ken Whisenhunt, previously the offensive coordinator with the Steelers.
Heading into the 2007 season, it was anticipated that Warner’s role would be to provide backup to Leinart, but when the younger quarterback went down with a broken collarbone in the fifth game, Warner came on to pass for 3417 yards and 27 touchdowns as the team went 8-8. He managed to keep going despite suffering ligament damage in his non-throwing elbow and had a 484-yard passing performance in an overtime loss to the 49ers.
While Coach Whisenhunt initially indicated that Leinart, who had not been impressive prior to his injury, would return to the starting role for 2008, he chose Warner to start the season. The result was a 9-7 record that topped the NFC West, followed by an improbable playoff run that led to a NFC Championship and close loss to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Along the way Warner set six franchise passing records as he completed 67.1 percent of his throws for 4583 yards and 30 touchdowns and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time since he was with the Rams in 2001. In the postseason, he was at his best. Over the course of four games, he completed 92 of 135 passes (68.1 %) for 1147 yards and 11 touchdowns, giving up just three interceptions. That included a four-TD performance against the Eagles in the NFC Championship game and a Super Bowl showing of 31 completions out of 43 attempts for 377 yards and three TDs, with one interception, that nearly resulted in a win.
Warner received a contract extension and, successfully recovering from arthroscopic hip surgery during the offseason, was back starting in 2009 at age 38. The Cardinals again topped the division, and with an improved 10-6 tally. Warner had another strong season, still throwing primarily to Fitzgerald and Boldin, and completed 66.1 percent of his tosses for 3753 yards and 26 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. In the Wild Card playoff round, he was 29-of-33 for 379 yards and five touchdowns, with none intercepted, in a wild 51-45 overtime win over the Packers, but any opportunity to again reach the Super Bowl ended with a crushing 45-14 Divisional round loss to the Saints in which Warner was held to 205 passing yards and failed to throw for a touchdown. It was the last game of his career. He announced his retirement afterward and resisted efforts by the team to bring him back for the last year of his contract in 2010.
For his five seasons in Arizona, Warner completed 1371 of 2105 passes (65.1 %) for 15,043 yards and 100 TDs while giving up 59 interceptions. While the team was just 27-30 in his starts, the figure is deceiving since, following an uneven beginning with a subpar team, in his last two years the Cards won two division titles and a NFC Championship. In six postseason starts, Warner was successful on 71.1 percent of his throws for 1731 yards and 16 touchdowns against just four interceptions, for a rating of 117.4.