Gracious Warner deserved better ending

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

TAMPA, Fla. -- Kurt Warner might forever replay in his mind the killer interception James Harrison returned for a 100-yard touchdown to end the first half of Super Bowl XLIII.

Warner needed referee Terry McAulay to review the final play of the game, but it never happened.

NFL history will never know what might have happened next.

Warner deserved a chance to find out.

A replay reversal would have given Warner and the Arizona Cardinals one last chance to complete a jump ball pass to Larry Fitzgerald, the king of jump ball receivers, from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 29-yard line.

For Warner, a second Super Bowl title and spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame might have been at stake.

Whether or not you thought Warner fumbled or threw incomplete on the Cardinals' final play, this epic finish merited a second look.

"I was really surprised on that one because I thought definitely I was moving my arm forward to throw the ball," Warner said. "I thought I had almost gotten the ball off. Yeah, it does surprise you that in that type of situation, five seconds to go to decide the Super Bowl, you would think there would be a review."

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt had already had two plays reversed by McAulay earlier in the game when the Steelers' LaMarr Woodley hit Warner in the final seconds. The ball came out, but how?

"I would have liked to have seen it replayed because it looked like it to me that Kurt was throwing the ball," Whisenhunt said.

The pass Harrison returned for a touchdown was the difference between a possible 14-10 lead and a 17-7 deficit, but it wasn't necessarily the difference in the game.

Warner made sure of it.

Not many quarterbacks could have willed their teams into a 23-20 lead against the NFL's top-ranked defense after trailing by 13 points midway through the fourth quarter.

Warner did it, and he did it his way -- spreading the field with four receivers and fighting through punishment that no 37-year-old quarterback should have overcome.

"I am so proud to be a part of this football team," Warner said. "I think that is one of the reasons why it doesn't hurt as bad as it could.

"These guys have exceeded expectations. I am proud. We gave ourselves a chance to win a world championship, but that other team went out and won it. I give them a whole bunch of credit, but I am glad to be on this sideline with this Cardinals team and organization."

Warner wasn't the only one at fault on the second-quarter interception. Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley said the Cardinals should have been wider in their formation. The spacing problem left Harrison in better position to settle into the route as part of the Steelers' zone-blitz scheme.

"We should have been a little bit more spread on that," Whisenhunt said. "We just weren't far enough outside and James Harrison stepped in front of it and made a good play."

Down but not out, Whisenhunt and Haley put the extended halftime period to good use.

They found ways to get Fitzgerald involved in the second half after the Steelers shut him down through two quarters.

"We made some adjustments and we weren't perfect in the second half, but we got [Fitzgerald] in positions where he could make plays," Haley said. "That is the name of the game and we knew we had to have him making plays to have a chance to win."

Arizona arguably should have stuck with more of its two-tight end offense, particularly after Edgerrin James gained 7 and 3 yards from it on consecutive carries in the third quarter.

But Haley thought the Cardinals were having trouble running the ball even against the Steelers' nickel defense. He also thought Arizona missed first-half opportunities to exploit the Steelers' strategy against Fitzgerald. The outlet passes he ordered to the running backs worked at times, but James dropped one pass and Warner missed a throw to Fitzgerald that Haley thought might have produced a touchdown.

Warner instantly found a rhythm in the fourth quarter when the Cardinals added a fourth receiver at the expense of the tight end. He completed consecutive passes for 13, 18, 6, 22, 18, 5, 4 and 1 yard during the 87-yard touchdown drive that turned a Steelers laugher into a six-point game, 20-14, with 7:33 remaining.

And when the Cardinals' special teams and defense produced a safety, Warner needed only two plays to produce another touchdown. His 64-yard strike to Fitzgerald with 2:37 remaining put Arizona ahead, 23-20.

Warner couldn't help what happened next. That's why the outcome shouldn't undermine his Hall of Fame credentials. If anyone enhanced his legacy in defeat, it was Warner, who now owns the three most prolific passing performances in Super Bowl history.

"You've got it in your grasp, and that is what Kurt said to me," Haley said. "Two minutes. You are two minutes from what you do all this for. You are two minutes from being world champions and it's as bad a feeling ... "

And yet Warner sounded remarkably at peace during his postgame interview session. There wasn't anything more he could have done, and everyone knew it.

"I have to give credit to the Steelers and their tremendous drive at the end," Warner said. "That is what championship teams are all about. We made the plays to put ourselves ahead and they turned around and came back and did the same to win the game.

"That is what a championship game should be about. I tip my hat to them for playing the way they did."

Even if Warner would have liked one more play.