Thriving in bigger arena

Football: In a matter of months, St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner has gone from being an unknown from the Arena League and NFL Europe to the NFL's Most Valuable Player.

January 13, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Kurt Warner's time arrived with the St. Louis Rams on the evening of Aug. 28 in a torrent of anguish, regret and disbelief.

Quarterback Trent Green had just gone down with a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game. The Rams' aggressive off-season makeover suddenly looked pointless. The losingest team of the decade seemed consigned to lose some more. Embattled coach Dick Vermeil cried, perhaps sensing that his time in St. Louis was up.

Into the middle of this maelstrom of emotion stepped Warner, 28, a veteran of NFL Europe (a league for marginal players) and the Arena League (eight-man football on a tight, 50-yard field), and an unknown commodity at quarterback.

The Rams hoped for survival. Miraculously, they found salvation.

Little did Warner suspect the path he and the Rams were about to travel back in August, after San Diego's Rodney Harrison chopped down Green with a low, late hit from behind. What unfolded is the stuff of legend. Four months later, Warner -- an unknown no longer -- leads the No. 1-seeded Rams into Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings as favorites to reach the Super Bowl.

Dream season

Who could have dreamed this up? An MVP season for a guy who was stocking shelves in an all-night Iowa supermarket three years ago? A 4,000-yard passing season from a quarterback who didn't start for a Division I-AA college team until his fifth year? Forty-one touchdown passes from a guy who was available -- but not taken by the Cleveland Browns -- in last year's expansion draft?

It may be the most incredible development in the NFL since a crew-cut quarterback named John Unitas went from making $6 a game in a semipro league to leading the Baltimore Colts to two world championships in his first four NFL seasons.

"It's the biggest Cinderella story since Unitas," said Ernie Accorsi, general manager of the New York Giants and former Colts executive. "The difference is, he [Warner] is more of a long shot, because Unitas had a statistically brilliant career at Louisville. Unitas wasn't a secret at the Steeler camp. This guy never displayed that much in his camps.

"Mind-boggling."

Unlike Unitas, Warner is no overnight success story. Not unless you call the past five years overnight.

"He's like a cabaret singer who has a big album at age 40, after 20 years working in the clubs," said Ravens coach Brian Billick.

In a topsy-turvy season when perennial powers have become paupers and paupers have become powers, Warner stands as a symbol of the new NFL.

"Nobody else came up through the ranks like that and fought his way to the top," said Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz. "The key to this thing was he had an opportunity and he ran with it."

Until this season, opportunity pretty much ignored Kurt Warner. When he finally got to start at Northern Iowa as a fifth-year senior in 1993, he threw for 17 touchdowns and 2,747 yards. He was Offensive Player of the Year in the Gateway Conference and took his team to the I-AA playoff semifinals. It was a harbinger of future success.

Undrafted, he lasted two weeks with the Green Bay Packers in 1994 training camp.

Next, Warner went indoors. He signed with the Arena League's Iowa Barnstormers. In three seasons and 45 games, he threw for 183 touchdowns (averaging four a game) and 10,164 yards. Twice, the Barnstormers reached the Arena Bowl.

In 1997, Al Luiginbill, who coached in NFL Europe, invited Warner to a tryout camp. Warner, understanding the politics of the farm league, wisely wanted an NFL contract so he would be allocated and have his best chance to play.

Luiginbill went through a dozen teams before the Rams agreed to the deal. Sent to the Amsterdam Admirals, Warner led the league with 15 touchdown passes and 2,101 yards in 10 starts, winning seven.

In 1998, Warner beat out Will Furrer as third quarterback on the Rams behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono. He played in one game -- the season finale -- and threw 11 passes.

From all that, the Rams got the league's Most Valuable Player and a shot at the Super Bowl.

"We're not as lucky as everybody thinks," said Charlie Armey, who runs the Rams' player personnel department, of Warner's success. "We worked him out, signed him, put him in NFL Europe. He did everything expected and more."

The Rams also made him available to the Browns in the expansion draft, a calculated gamble they won when Cleveland took former Maryland quarterback Scott Milanovich instead.

"If it wasn't such a strong year in the college draft, we wouldn't have done that," Armey said. "We knew the Browns were going to take a quarterback in the [college] draft."

European vacation

Prevailing wisdom suggests Warner found himself as a quarterback in the Arena League, where the field's small dimensions necessitate faster reads and quicker decisions, and in Europe. Martz says prevailing wisdom is wrong.

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