Retirement can wait for Warner, who has some unfinished business

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner takes the same field as Donovan McNabb Thursday night in Philadelphia, he will recognize McNabb's cleats; they are shoes he's walked in before.

The Eagles quarterback was benched for ineffective play in a loss to Baltimore, and while he'll start against Arizona, his stellar career with the Eagles is likely over after this season.

For Warner, it's been there, done that. He's guided teams to Super Bowls and has played at such a high level for so many years that when things go wrong, the positives are often forgotten and you're quickly regarded as washed-up.

"I've been there and I've had those situations and they define you for a period of time," said Warner, who was discarded by the St. Louis Rams after guiding them to two Super Bowls. "The fortunate thing for me is that the last couple of years I got a chance to show people that the bad times were more of a fabrication than the good times. I had some stretches where things didn't go in my favor but I could still play the game. I never forgot how to do that."

Apparently not.

At 37, Warner is having a career year, an incredible feat considering he has won two league MVPs, a Super Bowl championship, and thrown for 173 touchdowns and 27,514 yards (15.6 miles) during his 11-year career.

After 11 games this season, his numbers are staggering: 3,506 yards, 21 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a passer rating of 102.4. He is on pace to surpass Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yards (5,084). Warner also has breathed life into a forgotten franchise. At 7-4, Arizona can clinch the NFC West with a victory over McNabb and the Eagles.

On Monday, however, Warner wasn't feeling like a hero. The bruises and soreness he's battling through a day after losing 37-29 to the New York Giants had him wondering how much longer he can do this. His aches can't be offset by his fifth consecutive game of throwing for at least 300 yards. The right arm is intact but the constant banging is getting rougher by the week.

"I don't know where I'm at right now," Warner said. "There are different aspects of the game that give you an idea what the future is and how long you want to keep playing. What I know is that right now I can play at a high level and I'm enjoying that part of it. With that, and with other things, there's a lot of pressure and expectations that come with it. Those are the things you weigh year in and year out. Can I still play? Do I want to commit everything that it takes to play at that level moving forward? It means a lot of commitments physically. As you get older you have to work harder than before. It's the same commitments mentally.

"I feel that pressure each and every week to have to go out and perform and bring a high level of execution to help our team win. When you play this game a long time, those expectations and that pressure can weigh heavy on you. You have moments where it's like, man, you wish you could take a breath. Then you have other moments where you say, 'Would I want to be in any other situation where the ball wasn't in my hand?' "

Warner sounds a lot like Brett Favre did during Favre's last few seasons in Green Bay. When Warner's body is feeling a little fresher and his mind isn't still buzzing with the sting of a loss, his tune could be totally different. It's an internal battle that's being fought, all while he's tearing defenses apart during a Favre-like rebirth.

Warner has the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and an emerging third receiving option with Steve Breaston. Ken Whisenhunt's pass-first offense is catered for quarterback success. He's playing for a coach (Whisenhunt) who didn't view him as the mentor to touted high draft pick Matt Leinart and who lived up to his pledge to let the best players earn starting jobs.

And, he's playing for a contender again, all of which makes any decision to retire after this season even more difficult.

  -- Kurt Warner 

"That's the hard part," Warner said. "We're really growing together as a team and doing some special things. It would be tough to walk away from that because these situations don't come around very often. I wish I would have been here about four years ago and everything would have come together like this. It's unique, it's rare, it's fun. It will be tough if I were to make that decision to walk away from that or even consider walking away because we are having a lot of fun."

Warner's views seem to be turning.

In Week 4, when he saw Boldin lying on his back with his face fractured after catching a pass he threw to him in tight coverage, retirement immediately came to Warner's consciousness.

He knows that as well as things are going, an outlook can change as fast as you can say "unforeseen circumstances." A string of late-season losses, an early playoff exit, an injury or a barrage of fumbles -- things Warner has experienced before -- can bring doubt and perception changes.

"One of the things that comes with success is expectations," Warner said. "Fans, coaches expect you to play at a certain level week in and week out. They don't realize the dynamics of your situation can change, which puts a lot more pressure on the quarterback. You feel like you have to make throws that you might not make normally or make more plays you don't normally make because everything isn't normal around you -- everybody's not playing at a high level.

"You feel the expectation where, 'We're not winning as many games as we thought we were going to so I've got to do more than I was doing before.' It's easy to get caught up with that when you've had success. As soon as you don't have that same success, everybody wants to point at you and say you're not doing as well or you're not as good or we need to move forward. A lot of people don't understand the bigger picture and what could be going on.

"And sometimes you struggle. I don't care who you are and how well you've played this game, everybody has those times. Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Joe Montana ... no one is immune to struggle."

It happened to Warner in St. Louis. It happened to him again in his lone season with the New York Giants. Injuries, ineffectiveness and the potential of younger, newer quarterbacks made him expendable. The good times do come to an end.

Times are good right now, though, and Warner is relishing them. So are his teammates. What Warner might not realize is that while he's re-casting magic on his career, he's also showing younger players the way.

"As a young guy, you're kind of star-struck to see a two-time MVP hold the huddle and really keep his composure," said third-year guard Deuce Lutui, a teammate of Leinart's at USC. "He's always been the same guy. He's not going to change. He's been there before and he's upped everyone else's level of play.

"We're playing and blocking for him and he's making plays."

Warner has completed 70 percent of his passes and thrown at least one touchdown in every game this season. His 21 scoring passes ranks third in the league, and only New Orleans' Drew Brees has thrown for more yards. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the eight interceptions he's thrown in 433 attempts.

"Kurt has done a great job, managing things, working on things, moving in the pocket, holding onto the ball," Whisenhunt said. "That, coupled with his ability that hasn't diminished -- making those throws -- has allowed him to sustain. There is no question that he brings experience but you still have to play on the field and compete on the field to get your teammates' respect.

"Because of the way he played, the throws he's made, he's got it. Last year, when he tore the ligament in his (left, non-throwing) elbow and the way he played with that, he earned respect from his teammates."

Warner, more than anything, is grateful that he's been given another opportunity. He's not covering his eyes and ears to the talk of him winning another league MVP, which would tie him with Favre for the most by one player (three). He wants everything he can get while the window is open.

"Being that a lot of people thought my career has been over a couple times and that I couldn't play at this level and that I'd never be in this position, it's nice to have people recognize the fact that you can still play and that you're still playing at a high level," Warner said. "A lot of that comes because our team is winning, more than anything. To be able to play at this level, play the game the way I play it and to help our team win, it's fun at this stage.

"I wondered a couple years ago if I'd get this opportunity again. I didn't wonder if I could play, but if I would get the opportunity to play again. To be in this position and to play the last couple years at the level I have is rewarding."

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