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Warner adjusts to backup role but still wants to play

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Kurt Warner wants to set the record straight.

The 36-year-old quarterback plans to play out the remaining two years of his contract with the Arizona Cardinals.

And all that talk about retiring after he lost the starting job to Matt Leinart last year? It was just that, talk.

"What I was saying when I said that was, the more that kind of stuff happens, the more I think retirement's getting closer," said Warner, who also lost starting jobs with St. Louis and the New York Giants. "But it was never a situation where I said, 'I'm going to retire, this is it.'

"It was just the frustration built up. I think about it more and more when I go through these situations because it's never fun. And it's never the way you want to come to work, but you accept your role and you move forward."

Warner is back for his 10th NFL season, and his third with the Cardinals. But while many things about training camp are the same, including the tedium of dormitory life, there's one big difference for Warner. He arrived among the tall pines as the team's No. 2 quarterback, and the only way he'll be No. 1 again is if something happens to Leinart, the Cardinals' first round pick a year ago.

Warner didn't seek the mentor role. But he said he is adjusting to it nicely.

"If I didn't have that and that wasn't a part of this mix, I think this thing would be a lot more difficult for me to deal with," Warner said. "I believe that I've got a unique knowledge and understanding of this game, and I'm able to see it differently than a lot of people."

Warner can draw on experiences shared by few others. He's one of the great success stories in NFL history.

Undrafted coming out of Northern Iowa, Warner went from the Arena Football League and NFL Europe to lead St. Louis to two Super Bowls, winning one. A two-time league MVP, Warner enters this season with the highest completion percentage (65.6 percent) in league history.

Given all that he has accomplished, it wasn't easy for Warner to accept a lesser role. Due to injuries and demotions, he hasn't played a full season since 2001, and since 2002 he has thrown more interceptions (30) than touchdown passes (27).

But Warner still believes he can play at an elite level. He's in the second year of an incentive-laden three-year deal that could be worth between $15 million and $22 million.

"I still feel like I've got everything I used to have," Warner said. "But that adds to the frustration, too, when you know you can do everything you need to do to start."

The Cardinals are glad Warner decided not to quit. Unlike many teams, they don't have to worry if their starter goes down.

"The back-up quarterback's only one play away," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "He knows that at some point during the season, we're going to need him. I think that helps (him) deal with it."

It also helps that Warner and Leinart have become closer off the field. A year ago, their relationship came under heavy scrutiny, as is often the case in NFL quarterback dramas. But Warner now calls his relationship with Leinart "a quality friendship."

"For a while it was football-oriented," Warner said. "Then somewhere in the middle of the year last year, it moved off the field. I just think there was a natural progression there with our friendship, when football slowed down a little bit for him and we were able to just kind of kick back and enjoy one another."

For his part, Leinart said he values Warner's counsel, although he isn't afraid to needle him at times.

"It's nice, you know, because we can talk about anything besides just football," Leinart said. "I think he's kind of just the wise old man, so to speak."

As a throng of reporters chuckled, Leinart caught himself and added, "Not the old man, but where I look up to him."

Warner grinned when he heard what Leinart had said.

"As long as 'wise' is in there, I guess I can handle that," Warner said.

Warner's beard is speckled with gray. At 36, he can see the end of his career even if he's not quite ready for it.

"I've done things that people in this league will never do," he said. "And so if I never step on the field again, I'm going to leave this game happy and excited about what I was able to accomplish. But in the back of my mind, I'm hoping for one more chance to get in a situation where I can succeed and show people that I can still play."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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