You might not have realized it from the gloomy pronouncements of the people in my business, but Kurt Warner was the most sought-after quarterback in free agency this past offseason, a clear sign that coaches and personnel experts viewed the two-time MVP's nine-game stint as the New York Giants' starter far more favorably than most of us might have imagined.
It was entirely fitting, then, that the news of Warner's eventual signing with the Arizona Cardinals was broken not by a football writer, but by some dude in tight shorts, a golf shirt and a dorky Mickey Mouse hat.
I may be taking some liberties with the Scoopmeister's appearance, but Warner came to his decision around the time he was visiting Disney World, as he does every February, with a group of terminally ill children as part of his affiliation with the Make-a-Wish foundation. On this particular afternoon, Warner was participating in an open forum at an interactive studio at the theme park, and one of the 150 or so people who'd stumbled into the room asked the 33-year-old where he planned to sign.
"You know," Warner replied. "I'm pretty sure I'm going to be an Arizona Cardinal."
Suffice it to say, this wasn't the answer the folks in that studio expected. Heck, it wasn't even the answer Warner had expected until a few days earlier. Contacted by virtually every team that went quarterback-shopping in the offseason, Warner pondered overtures from San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Miami. The Cardinals were late to enter the mix, but once they did, Dennis Green and his assistants put on a full-court press.
That, more than anything, was what Warner sought. Having endured a rocky end to his once-charmed run with the St. Louis Rams and an untimely benching to hasten the development of would-be Giants savior Eli Manning, Warner was in full Cheap Trick mode: I want you to want me.
"They were extremely excited to have me be a part of their organization," Warner said of the Cardinals this past Wednesday morning, a few hours before Green officially named him the team's 2005 starter. "That, more than anything, made it a good fit. Once they got involved, it just felt right."
Get Warner going, and he will display a salesperson's enthusiasm for his new team's prospects in 2005 -- a pitch that, upon closer examination, makes a great deal of sense. Despite a dubious legacy attributable largely to the Bidwill family's shaky and chintzy ownership approach, the Cards have been getting their house in order since they hired Green following the 2003 season. Arizona went 6-10 last year, but five of those defeats were by a touchdown or less. The team had some bad injury luck and a glaring lack of experience at quarterback, which is where Warner comes into play.
No, he is not the same passer whose uncanny accuracy and downfield bravado made him the league's most productive player while leading the Rams to a pair of Super Bowls from the 1999 through 2001 seasons -- at least judging from recent evidence. Be it a hand injury that hasn't fully healed or simply a steady erosion of confidence, he has not been that guy for some time.
Yet Warner remains a savvy player with leadership skills, attributes he displayed in leading the Giants to a surprising 5-3 start in 2004. Most journalists and fans couldn't get past Warner's subpar statistics, but many of the talent evaluators throughout the NFL, mindful of the passer's role in coach Tom Coughlin
's restrictive offensive scheme, felt he'd overachieved. The former grocery-bagger-turned-sudden-star-turned-sudden-washout looked even better after Coughlin made the move to Manning, who promptly lost his first six games as the team squandered a possible playoff berth.
Warner, one of the most relentlessly optimistic men in his profession, harbors no bitterness. "From an overall standpoint, I'm thankful to the Giants and to coach Coughlin for giving me the opportunity they did," Warner said. "Of course, I would've liked to have spent more time on the field, but it put me in a perfect place to get where I am now. I was given the opportunity to show the Arizona Cardinals what I could still do, and now I have the opportunity to lead a team."
If Warner plays the way he anticipates, the Cardinals could be better than expected. With the return to health of 2003 rookie sensation Anquan Boldin and the vast promise displayed by last year's No. 3 overall pick, Larry Fitzgerald
, the team has two potential stars at wideout. Tight end Freddie Jones remains productive, and the enticing Marcel Shipp (if he can stay healthy) and recent second-round draft pick J.J. Arrington give Green a pair of intriguing options at halfback. The signings of respected veterans such as Warner and safety Robert Griffith should pay dividends in the locker room.
And even though his first instinct is to scoff when people talk up the Cardinals' new uniforms -- a deeply religious Christian, Warner is averse to superstition or any insinuation that luck plays in a role in determining life's events -- he understands the purpose of such a switch.
"The uniform is cool," Warner said, laughing. "I'm an old-school guy who believes that it doesn't matter what you put me in; I just want to go out and play. But in this case I think it's good because it's in conjunction with a change in both regime -- to Coach Green last year -- and in attitude. I like the mentality that goes with it. It's generated excitement around here, and it's giving everyone the idea that the people wearing them won't be the same old Cardinals."
Early in our conversation, Warner challenged me to pick the Cardinals to go to their first Super Bowl next February. I won't go that far, but I will say this: In what looks like the NFL's weakest division, Warner will play well enough to push his new team past his estranged mentor Mike Martz's Rams, Dapper Mike Nolan's Niners and Mike "$500,000 per victory" Holmgren's Seahawks. That's right, you heard it here first: The Cardinals will win the NFC West in 2005.
There's your first scoop of the season. And I didn't even have to wear dorky shorts to get it.