St. Louis Blues
Sidelined by another hand injury, the Rams' Kurt Warner is battered, beaten and nowhere near the MVP of old
Kurt Warner still has the aura of a rock star. While three security guards hustled him through the third floor of his downtown Philadelphia hotel last Saturday night to a meeting with a Fox TV crew, the Rams quarterback was mobbed by loud, pushy autograph hounds. "Let him through!" said one yellow-jacketed security man, who ran interference with a threatening forearm. Such is the mania that surrounds a two-time NFL MVP, even on the road and even when he doesn't remotely resemble the player who inspired all those passionate fans.
You could blame a patchwork line for Warner's struggles, because he has faced more pressure this year than he ever did in the last three seasons. In a 10-3 loss to the Eagles on Sunday that all but eliminated the Rams (5-7) from playoff contention, Warner was sacked eight times. You could say his poor throws are the result of a broken right pinky he suffered on Sept 29. Or you could say the seven weeks of inactivity because of the injury explains his rustiness since his return on Nov. 24. But the fact remains that Warner was 0-4 as a starter with one touchdown and eight interceptions before he got hurt.
The reason there's not a major quarterback controversy in St. Louis is that wunderkind passer Marc Bulger, who was 5-0 as a starter in Warner's absence, badly sprained the index finger on his throwing hand on Nov. 18 and hasn't played since. Bulger said on Sunday that he couldn't throw the ball more than 10 yards. After watching the Eagles game tape, coach Mike Martz said on Monday that he wasn't convinced Warner could throw the ball very well either. Although Warner insisted that his hand was fine, Martz sent him for X-rays, which revealed a hairline fracture at the base of his right hand. Martz said Jamie Martin would start this week's game in Kansas City and that Warner will be used only as the emergency third quarterback.
One play on Sunday showed why Warner is miles from being the quarterback who led the Rams to two Super Bowls and why the team has to wonder if he'll ever be that player again. Trailing 10-3 with 10:12 left in the third quarter, Warner had already lost a fumble and thrown an interception that Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor returned 23 yards for a touchdown. On third-and-10 from the Philadelphia 27, wideout Isaac Bruce sprinted toward the end zone with corner Troy Vincent a step behind. Warner launched a perfect spiral. "He's still the purest passer in the game," Vincent said later. "When he threw it, Isaac was wide open." The Warner of seasons past would have made the completion in his sleep, but this throw was five feet short, and Bruce had to slow down as he crossed the goal line. Vincent closed in, leaped and picked off the pass. "It's simple," Warner said afterward. "If I put the ball where it needs to be, it's a touchdown."
Warner became the NFL's most accurate quarterback—with the best passer rating of all time—by throwing a beautiful intermediate and deep ball to a group of speedy receivers. The wideouts didn't have to be open by much for Warner to hit them perfectly. Then for two months during the off-season, he wore a splint on his right thumb to treat a ligament that was strained last year. During training camp he said his throwing hand was fine. He said it again on Sunday, even though the hand was encased in ice during a postgame interview. But something has been wrong all along, and Warner has to be candid about his health with Martz, who has been unwavering in his support. "The biggest thing is that his short to intermediate accuracy is not as good," says Broncos director of pro scouting Rick Smith. "His balls tend to sail, and he's not putting the ball in the catchable places he used to."
Adds Giants linebacker Mike Barrow, "He doesn't seem as comfortable in the pocket as he used to be. He's not setting up the way he did, and he's rushing his throws too much. That messes up his accuracy. He's such a great touch passer, but when he has to rush his throws, it's bound to affect that touch."
The Rams have a tough long-term decision to make about Bulger, the league's highest-rated passer (106.0), who will be an exclusive-rights free agent after the season. That means St. Louis only has to tender him an offer to retain his rights. Look for the Rams to try to sign Bulger to a long-term deal, partly out of concern about Warner's performance and also because Martz will be damned if he trades a quarterback who ends up developing into a great passer somewhere else.
The Shorter, The Better
If you think you've seen a rise in the number of screen passes, flares and dump-offs to running backs behind the line of scrimmage this season, you're right. Just look at how some of the best offenses are moving the ball. On screens and other short stuff alone, the Patriots' Tom Brady completed 17 of 18 attempts for 222 yards and three touchdowns against the Bills last month. Passers who love to throw downfield, such as Brett Favre, Jeff Garcia, Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb, all have a lower yards-per-completion average than they did a year ago.