TEMPE, Ariz. -- Kurt Warner had heard the stories about playing for the Arizona Cardinals.
How tough it was to win in the desert, where careers, like snowbirds, went for retirement. He also heard about team owner Bill Bidwill’s frugality. Tough, actually, might have been an understatement even for one of the most famous overachievers in NFL history. Wins in Arizona were almost as rare as rain. Before Warner arrived in Arizona in 2005, the Cardinals’ last winning season was 1998. The one before that was 1984.
Warner was three years removed from his last Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams and had won five games in that span, with the New York Giants, before he signed with Arizona. At 34, the optimist in him wasn’t ready to retire. Two NFL MVP awards, two Super Bowls that produced one title and success in the Arena Football League and college affirmed his belief he could change the fortunes of another franchise.
“You have success very quickly and very early and you kinda assume, ‘We can do that wherever we go,’” said Warner, who after leading the Cardinals to their only Super Bowl in 2009, will be inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime of Monday night’s game against San Diego. “So, I kinda had that mentality that I thought when I got there, ‘You know, maybe this is a match made in heaven. Everyone thinks I’m out and nobody expects anything from the Cardinals, so together we could do something special.’”
It sounded good but Warner realized early in 2005 it wasn’t going to be that easy. Warner joined a locker room that didn’t have an identity, said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was in his second year when Warner came on board.
Warner learned quickly the Cardinals didn’t believe they could win. It went deeper, however. The organization and the community didn’t believe it either. Arizona’s current general manager, Steve Keim, who was part of the Cardinals’ scouting department when Warner was signed, said Warner’s early teams hoped to win, instead of expecting to win.
Mediocrity was the norm. Nobody, Warner said, expected to be the one to make a game-winning play.
“I just don’t think they understood what greatness looked like,” he said. “Those first couple years were struggles because you just felt it. You’d feel the air go out of a team when certain things would happen.”
With Warner, the Cardinals finally had a stabilizing presence, Fitzgerald said. He was someone who demanded excellence, Keim added. His burning desire to win was infectious, said center Lyle Sendlein, who joined the team in 2007. But to pull Arizona out of the mire of mediocrity, Warner needed to play. It was a battle he’d fight through the beginning of 2008, when he led Arizona to Super Bowl XLIII.
He made the Cardinals the best passing offense in the NFL in 2005 despite winning just five games. Warner said there was progress, but Arizona needed to win for the locker room to buy into what he was selling.
In 2006, the franchise drafted Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart out of USC. Warner sensed he was being looked at as another washed-up, past-his-prime quarterback. When he was benched by former Cardinals coach Dennis Green four games into 2006 after going 1-3, Warner contemplated retirement.
“It wore me out,” he said. “It was frustrating. There were moments when I got benched for Matt that I was like, ‘Is this even worth it? Maybe I should retire now. I am so frustrated.’ You come into the situation feeling like you’re invincible, that you can turn any organization around.
“I wanted it to be more of an overnight fix than something that would’ve taken three years.”
When Ken Whisenhunt took over in 2007, he inherited a frustrated Warner. But a new coach with a new plan was what Warner needed.
“I think they already moved on [from Warner],” said Whisenhunt, now the head coach of the Tennessee Titans. “Matt was our guy and Kurt was just there. That was the feeling I had.”
Besides bringing in his own coaching staff, Whisenhunt brought a proven blueprint for winning from the Pittsburgh Steelers. After all, he had helped Pittsburgh win a Super Bowl as its offensive coordinator in 2006.
Whisenhunt implemented a dress code on road trips, outlawed food during meetings and started holding players accountable for being on time. That was enough for Warner to want to hitch his wagon to Whisenhunt.
“We had a chance to kinda start anew,” Warner said. “I felt like if I can get in at that point with the pieces we had, that there was going to be a chance to salvage this thing.”
Whisenhunt could see Warner wasn’t done, but in order to earn snaps, Warner had to do two things: Put two hands on the ball because he had been fumbling and move in the pocket to cut down on sacks.
Warner and Leinart platooned in 2007, with Warner taking the no-huddle offense. It allowed him to flourish and earn respect without being responsible for wins and losses. The turning point of Warner’s career in Arizona came during Week 3, three games before he became the full-time starter. Down 23-6 at Baltimore heading into the fourth quarter, Warner led Arizona on 17-0 run to tie the game before the Ravens won in the final seconds. The outcome didn’t matter as much as Warner’s performance.
“That was the first game where I think everybody’s eyes kinda perked up,” Warner said. “We’ve never done that since I’ve been here.
“That was the first time that people in that organization had ever been around that. I think that’s what really sparked what was able to happen the next three years.”
Warner became the starter in Week 6, after Leinart got hurt, and led Arizona to an 8-8 record.
“I firmly believe if we would’ve rolled with him in 2007, Whiz’s first year, we would’ve definitely made the playoffs that year,” Fitzgerald said.
Warner, who called the last half of 2007 some of the best football he HAs ever played, sensed there was a newfound belief because of consistency. He walked into Whisenhunt’s office after the season and said he wanted the job. Whisenhunt hesitated to hand it over and another preseason quarterback battle awaited Warner. This time he won the job.
Warner said the Cardinals didn’t enter the 2008 season thinking they would win the Super Bowl but they knew they could play with any team in the league.
“All the expectations were there,” Warner said. “That was a step up from what we believed before that.”
Arizona won the NFC West for the first time and got into the playoffs because of a 7-3 start, but Warner wasn’t convinced his teammates knew how to win. He thought they could be headed to a one-and-done showing in the playoffs.
“We’re going to lose the first game because nobody has any bigger expectations for our team,” he said.
Fitzgerald, who estimated 10 Cardinals had playoff experience, said Warner took it upon himself to get the Cardinals ready for the playoffs. He told them how to prepare, how different the atmosphere would be and how manage the roller coaster of emotions.
Arizona went on one of the most surprising playoff runs in NFL history, punctuated by a 20-point win at second-seeded Carolina in the divisional round, after which Warner gave his famous “Let’s shock the world” speech.
At the Super Bowl three weeks later, Warner sat back and watched his teammates. To him, it was old hat. But to them, and to the organization, the Super Bowl had been a mythical place.
“I think getting there, it sunk in as they were enjoying the Super Bowl and taking it all in,” he said. “This is what it’s all about. This is what greatness looks like.”
Arizona came back the next year poised to make another Super Bowl run and had the team to do it, going 10-6 and winning the division for a second straight year. Defensive end Calais Campbell, who was a rookie on the Super Bowl team, said the 2009 team believed it could win every game. But a loss to New Orleans in the divisional round ended Arizona’s run and Warner’s career. He retired less than two weeks later.
His work was done. Warner had transformed the Cardinals from an organization that accepted mediocrity to one that expected winning. It took five seasons and two head coaches to do it, but Warner left a legacy of high expectations and a belief in winning.
Arizona returned to mediocrity for the three years following Warner’s retirement, going 5-11, 8-8 and 5-11 before Whisenhunt was fired. But Warner passed his winning mindset to Fitzgerald, Sendlein, Campbell and Dockett, who are passing it along to the current crop of Cardinals, hopefully leading to “sustainable success” as Keim put it.
“Once I left, there was great frustration in being mediocre and that wasn’t there before, at least from an entire organization, an entire team standpoint,” Warner said. “It was just accepted. It wasn’t accepted after the run that we made and I think that was the coolest part.”