Back to Reality
The Rams and Cinderella star Kurt Warner are miles apart on a new deal
Suddenly, the Kurt Warner story is not so warm, not so fuzzy. Warner, the Cinderella quarterback who went on to become the league and Super Bowl MVP last season, could be a holdout when the Rams report to training camp next month.
A source close to the contract talks between St. Louis and Warner's agent, Mark Bartelstein, says that the passer is asking for a signing bonus in excess of $10 million and that the Rams have no intention of giving him that kind of money after just one great season. (Another source says Warner wants close to $15 million, or what Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer got as part of a four-year, $25 million extension he signed after his second season, in 1998.)
Fact is, St. Louis doesn't have to shell out that much. While Warner, who played in the Arena League before catching on with the Rams, is not under contract, he has no free-agent rights because he's only a two-year veteran. According to the league's collective bargaining agreement, a player is eligible for restricted free agency after three seasons, giving him the opportunity to solicit offers from other teams, and can become an unrestricted free agent after his fourth year. Though obligated to pay Warner only the very mortal sum of $358,000 this season, St. Louis would like to hammer out a long-term deal.
At week's end the Rams were $157 million under the salary cap, but they hadn't signed any of their seven draft picks. And like any Super Bowl champ, they have contractual clouds hanging over their roster. Pro Bowl cornerback Todd Lyght is unsigned. Two of St Louis's five best players—wideout Isaac Bruce and 1999 NFL sack champion Kevin Carter—are eligible for unrestricted free agency after the 2000 season, as is starting corner Dexter McCleon. Two other young stars, middle linebacker London Fletcher and wide-out Az Hakim, can become restricted free agents next winter.
Other factors may have an impact on Warner's next contract. Late last season, when he was playing for the second-year minimum of $254,000, the Rams paid Warner a $500,000 bonus. Also, St. Louis has already doled out starter's money to quarterback Trent Green, who is entering the second year of a four-year, $16.5 million contract; Green was spectacular during the '99 preseason before tearing ligaments in his left knee. That opened the door for Warner, who, after attempting only 11 passes during his first season in St. Louis, threw for 41 touchdowns and 4,353 yards while leading the Rams to their first Super Bowl title. Now Warner wants to be paid like a top-notch quarterback.
"We're in a quandary," says Rams general manager Jay Zygmunt. "You have to have some respect for the system, and the system says Kurt owes us two years. If Kurt is as good as they think he is, as he thinks he is, he's going to get his money. The question is when."
Counters Bartelstein, "The system never contemplated what Kurt Warner did. If you are not going to take care of Kurt, who are you going to take care of? And when?"
On the prospect of holding out of camp, Warner says, "I haven't even thought about that yet. I'm confident something will get done before it gets to that point."
In all likelihood he will be in uniform when the Rams open against the Broncos on Monday night, Sept. 4. But the fairy tale of the grocery stocker turned Super Bowl hero is about to get a dose of hard reality.