Kurt Warner has been hearing three questions almost nonstop since succeeding Trent Green as the Rams' starting quarterback after Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in an Aug. 28 preseason game. "An unknown guy has the spotlight thrust upon him, and everybody wants to know the same things," said Warner the night before facing the Lions in the preseason finale. "Who is he, what's he about, and can he do the job?"
Who is he? Warner, 28, started just one season at Division I-AA Northern Iowa and had a brief tryout with the Packers in 1994 before landing in the Arena league. In guiding the Iowa Barnstormers to two Arena Bowls in three seasons, he threw for 10,465 yards and 183 touchdowns while sharpening his reads and his confidence. When he moved back outside and joined the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe in 1998, he led the league in yardage, completions and touchdowns, prompting St. Louis to sign him. Warner threw only 11 passes last year, but when Tony Banks and Steve Bono left town after the season, he was promoted to backup.
"We had an opportunity in the off-season to get another quarterback," says Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz. "If we hadn't felt great about Kurt, we would have done something then." Martz says the team has no plans to start quarterback Paul Justin, who was acquired last week in a trade with the Raiders. In fact, Martz has so much confidence in Warner that he has assigned him no extra work or study sessions in preparation for the regular-season opener against the Ravens. "You look at me like I'm crazy when I say that," says Martz, "but we know Kurt, you don't."
What's he about? With a crew cut and a goatee, the 6'2", 220-pound Warner has a look to match his 1950s-style work ethic. While it would be nearly impossible for him to match Green's take-charge attitude and accuracy, Warner has endured some off-field hardships that may have enhanced his on-field poise. In 1996 the parents of his wife, Brenda, were killed in a tornado in Mountain View, Ark., and the couple's oldest son, 10-year-old Zachary, has been blind since suffering a head injury in an accident when he was a baby. "I've been through some pretty rough stuff," says Warner. "So maybe I know better than to get hyped up over starting a football game."
Can he do the job? "Kurt is going to play better than any of the Number 1 draft picks at quarterback this year," says St. Louis coach Dick Vermeil. Last Thursday, after just three days of practice with the first-team offense, Warner guided the Rams to two touchdowns and a field goal in his three drives against the hapless Lions, completing nine of 15 passes for 89 yards in the 17-6 win.
In the course of directing his first NFL touchdown march, Warner sidestepped Detroit tackle Luther Elliss, corrected tight end Chad Lewis when he lined up wrong, fired a 25-yard laser to Ricky Proehl, scrambled 12 yards for a first down and tossed a six-yard scoring pass to Marshall Faulk. Unlike most first-time starters, though, Warner made no effort to retrieve the ball. He got a nicer keepsake later when Vermeil handed him the game ball. "Hopefully," said Warner, "what I did tonight was answer some of those questions about me."