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Much like his Super teams, Warner has been lifted from near ruin

TAMPA, Fla. -- Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner is at a point where he's starting to put his 11-year NFL career in context. It's not measured in statistics, which are numerous; awards, which are plenty; or even Super Bowl appearances, of which he's about to make his third.

For Warner, his career is defined by relevance, and when broken down to that simple denominator, he has few rivals.

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"I have been a part of two organizations that nobody thought would get (to the Super Bowl)," Warner said. "That's something I want to hang on to for a lifetime. When I'm talking about one of the things that define my career and what is most special to me, stats, they are what they are. The bottom line is you want to impact the place you go and the people you're around, and I hope I've done that in my football career, both on and off the field."

Warner, 37, has led the Cardinals to the first Super Bowl in franchise history. He twice took the St. Louis Rams to Super Bowls, winning one following the 1999 season.

The Cardinals and Rams had changed cities and fan bases and done little to place themselves among those considered model franchises. Yet Warner, a player who'd done little to place himself among those considered model quarterbacks, lifted both teams from near ruin.

In St. Louis, Warner worked his way from grocery bagger to Arena Leaguer to NFL Europe vagabond to bring the Rams their first Super Bowl title. His run to glory ended quickly after the 2001 Super Bowl season, when injuries and Marc Bulger's emergence rendered Warner expendable.

Like a prize fighter beyond his glory years, Warner went from champ to contender.

After being released by the Rams, Warner was signed to groom Eli Manning with the New York Giants. Once Manning usurped him as the starter, Warner signed with Arizona, where he won the starting job in the 2005 season, only to lose it to Josh McCown.

Warner's status as an accurate tough guy who made teammates better withered amid routine fumbles, rattled nerves, injuries and interceptions. He became a palooka in the eyes of a lot of teams. Since his Rams lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, Warner has lost his starting job four times.

That nugget alone will be ammunition for critics when it comes time to debate Warner's Hall of Fame worthiness. Still, he's here. Three Super Bowl appearances with two sad-sack franchises, two league MVPs and four Pro Bowls to boot.

"I never doubted myself," Warner has said. "I just doubted whether I'd get another opportunity."

More than the 30 touchdowns and 4,583 yards Warner threw for this season, his impact on the Cardinals has come through his perseverance. He's a guy who teammates have seen had to fight for his job, fight to retain his job and win on both counts.

After finishing the final 11 games last season when 2006 first-round draft pick Matt Leinart was hurt, Warner had to prove himself again this offseason.

Had Leinart not played so poorly in the Cardinals' third preseason game this season against the Oakland Raiders, this story might be quite different. That four-of-12, three-interception performance by Leinart in that exhibition victory re-opened Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt's thinking about who should start the season after both players had been neck-and-neck in a training-camp competition.

Just more than one week before the season opener, Whisenhunt and his staff decided Warner was the best option. Leinart might be the future. Warner was the now.

"What it came down to, it was a very close decision, was what player gave us a chance to win early," Whisenhunt said. "I looked at our schedule, and with five East Coast trips, it was important that we start fast, and we did that with Kurt."

They started 4-2. Two-thirds of the way through the season, Warner was among the front-runners for league MVP. He wasn't fumbling, he wasn't throwing interceptions. He was doing what he does best -- leading. Leading only works when the leader is playing well, and Warner was playing very well.

Then came the late-season 1-4 skid that brought on cries of Arizona being the fraudulent champion of a fraudulent NFC West division. Warner wasn't playing his best, and neither was the team. Warner drew on his doubters for motivation. He'd gotten up off the mat so many times, this was familiar territory. The Cardinals knocked off the Seattle Seahawks in the regular-season finale to get to 9-7. Still, Arizona seemed like an easy out in the playoffs.

The Cardinals proceeded to win three times in the playoffs, coming from behind each time -- fitting for a quarterback who always seems to be rallying. Warner has thrown eight touchdown passes and just two interceptions and has posted a 112 rating this postseason. The outcome of the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers' steely defense could come down squarely on Warner.

"Kurt, to his credit, worked very hard at some of the things we asked him to do: ball security, moving in the pocket, decisions on his reads," Whisenhunt said. "In order to get in that position and a great deal of the success he's had, is because of the work that he put in. Kurt's never been afraid to work, and obviously, because of our success, I am very excited about the way Kurt's played.

"Anytime a veteran has had success, then not had it, it's always something to admire to see him come back to that level again."

Now that he's at the precipice of Super Bowl XLIII, Warner is being heralded for his work ethic, inspiration and production. The love affair is in full swing, and Warner is lapping it up.

That's because in a few months, Warner could be hearing that he's too old for the Cardinals to invest big money in re-signing him to a new free-agent contract. If Arizona does it, so will other teams. That could prompt him to retire or gird his resolve -- again.

Even if Warner comes back with the Cardinals, there's a very good chance he could be in another competition for the starting job with Leinart. Warner has trumpeted the coaching staff for selecting the best man for the job before this season, but that's because he won the job. Had he not, he might not be as partial to the decision. Leinart could end up getting their votes before next season.

There are plans, after all, for him to be The Guy, at some point.

And once again, Warner will be the just-in-case guy, hoping to get another shot to have an impact, somehow.

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