Coming to Grips
The Rams' season could hinge on how Kurt Warner's fragile right thumb holds up
Rams quarterback Kurt Warner insists that his throwing hand is fine, but there's a lump on the thumb that could threaten the career of one of the biggest stars in the game. "No pain, nothing—no problem whatsoever?' Warner said before a recent practice in Macomb, Ill. But the fact that the All-Pro quarterback wore a protective splint on the right thumb for two months during the off-season to help heal a sprained ligament is cause to wonder if the thumb can hold up for a five-month championship run.
Mike Martz says he'll be more vigilant about relieving Warner in blowouts, but as the St. Louis coach points out, his team didn't have nearly as many routs in the past two seasons as it did en route to winning the Super Bowl in 1999. The reality is, Warner is playing roulette with the Rams' season, especially with John St Clair, who has never played an NFL down, as his new right tackle. "If I get it banged or hit again, you never know?' Warner says.
Warner first injured the thumb seven years ago during his rookie season in the Arena Football League. "I broke it in a game," he says, "and instead of putting a cast on it and allowing it to heal, I played through it." The resulting lump—a calcification of the bone on the outside of the thumb—stretched a tendon. Then in the 2001 opener he injured the thumb again, spraining the ligament when he banged his thumb on the helmet of an Eagles defender.
"He struggled with it the whole year," says Martz, "but he still played so well, you'd hardly know it." Warner is 97 passes shy of 1,500, the qualifying line for career records. If he continues to perform at the level he has in his first four seasons, he will reach 1,500 with the highest quarterback rating ever (103.0, to Steve Young's 96.8), the best completion percentage (66.9, to Young's 64.3) and the most yards per pass attempt (9.02, to Otto Graham's 8.63). Consider this: No other player who began his NFL career in the last 45 years has averaged even eight yards per attempt.
Warner is 40-10 as a starter, but one of his worst days came in last February's Super Bowl, a 20-17 loss to the Patriots. He wasn't sharp, throwing two interceptions. When he thinks back to that game, Warner doesn't point fingers at anyone, not even right tackle Rod Jones. In the second quarter Jones missed a block on outside linebacker Mike Vrabel that forced an interception by cornerback Ty Law, who returned the ball 47 yards for a momentum-turning early touchdown. "My fault," Warner says. "I've made that throw with guys in my face a hundred times. It was a horrible throw."
Look for St. Louis to protect Warner this year by relying more on their "deuce," or double-tight-end package. That formation, which aligns Ernie Conwell (265 pounds) and Brandon Manumaleuna (288) alongside the tackles, should also give Marshall Faulk more opportunity to run to the outside.
But try as Martz might to shield Warner, the quarterback will still be exposed to some great pass rushers early on. In the opener on Sept. 8 the Rams will face the Broncos' Trevor Pryce, who was converted from tackle to end to take advantage of his pass-rush ability. In Week 2 the Giants' Michael Strahan, who sacked Warner four times in last season's meeting, visits St. Louis. And the next week the Rams go to Tampa to face the sack-happy Bucs defense.
Ed McCaffrey's Return
Nightmare Almost Over
In the recovery room after surgery to repair his broken left tibia and fibula last September, Broncos wideout Ed McCaffrey looked up from his anesthesia-induced haze at a TV set and watched the World Trade Center disaster unfold. Reliving those hours recently, McCaffrey said, "It put what had happened to me in perspective very, very quickly."