Warner must prove he can still produce

On the New York Giants' Web site Thursday morning, a hastily photographed digital image of the franchise's newest starting quarterback appeared -- Kurt Warner in a red practice jersey bearing his familiar No. 13.

Given the recent performance of the all-time league leader in passing efficiency -- remember, this is a player who hasn't won a game as a starter since 2001 -- both the color of the practice shirt and the numerals emblazoned on the front and back of it might, alas, prove pretty appropriate.

The Giants wear blue uniforms, of course, and the red practice jersey is a universal "don't touch" cautionary measure designed to keep pass rushers from jostling the quarterback. As for the No. 13, well, surely the most non-superstitious among us understands its ominous implications. Even the great Dan Marino, who also thumbed his nose at fate by donning No. 13 for all 17 of his mostly brilliant seasons, eventually could not elude the misfortune attached to those dire digits.

And so, while we hope we're wrong about this, given that Warner is a good guy and one who couldn't depart St. Louis before first passing through the Rams' complex to visit with the people who served as his support group for six seasons, that red practice shirt and the No. 13 represent an ominous beginning to the next chapter of his career.

During an afternoon news conference, a smiling Warner noted Giants officials were kind enough to allow him to retain his favorite uniform number. Maybe a change of scenery, though, begged for a change from the recently cursed 13. Warner also noted that, after starting just one game in 2003, it is time to get his feet wet again. But should he spend much of '04 submerged beneath the opposition pass rush, desperately trying to tread water behind New York's remodeled offensive line, Warner might someday look back on the irony of his words.

Make no mistake, signing Warner to a two-year contract worth $9.5 million -- which, in reality, is a one-year deal at $3 million, since the second year is voidable -- was a solid enough gamble by New York. But there is no mistaking as well that Warner, who will turn 33 in a couple weeks and who was sacked six times while throwing but one touchdown pass in 2003, isn't the same guy who claimed two league MVP awards and led the Rams to a Super Bowl XXXIV championship.

Once the ego of Kerry Collins kept him from collecting a $7 million paycheck this year for introducing the Tutor Dynasty at Giants Stadium, serving as a grizzled starter/mentor to Eli Manning, the team sought Neil O'Donnell for that position. When he declined, and it became clear Warner was persona non grata in St. Louis, the rags-to-riches guy became the next target. Give the savvy Warner credit for this much: Unlike Collins (who will require two seasons in Oakland to earn the $7 million he would have banked staying with the Giants), and O'Donnell, Warner knew a good opportunity when he saw one.

What he doesn't see as clearly anymore, usually because you can't read a secondary when you're at the bottom of a pile, is open wide receivers. And therein lies a likely problem for the Giants, who wouldn't mind it if Manning only carries a clipboard this season, and isn't prematurely forced to carry a high-profile franchise coming off a disastrous 2003.

General manager Ernie Accorsi is a guy who knows quarterbacks. He grew up in the NFL watching the great Johnny Unitas, arguably the premier practitioner of all-time at the position. He was against trading away John Elway, who threatened to sit out instead of playing for the Baltimore Colts in 1983. Six weeks ago, Accorsi beat the odds by pulling off a blockbuster trade to land the coveted Manning, a gambit that ought to ensure the Giants superb quarterback play for the next decade.

That said, while we agree that Warner represented the most viable option to simply throwing Manning to the wolves, the results could be dicey.

My good friend Gary Myers, the veteran and sage NFL columnist for the New York Daily News, suggested by phone the other day that Warner is essentially the stunt double for Manning this year. A great analogy and one I wished I'd conjured up first. Rather than steal the term from Myers, we'll substitute "crash test dummy" in its place. The Giants are going to strap Warner into the starter's throne, put him behind the rebuilt offensive line, and monitor the results.

Here's hoping that Warner, who has been about as fragile as a Faberge egg over the last couple of seasons, can survive. Let's hope, too, that his biggest cheerleader, wife Brenda, isn't so quick to pick up the phone and call one of New York's sports-talk stations when hubby is jeered following his first interception. That schtick may have played well in the Midwest but in New York, where the radio hosts can contort the most benign syllable and turn every molehill into a tabloid headline, it won't sell at all.

How well Warner sells remains to be seen. A super person, he is also a player in denial. He bristles when it is suggested he is damaged goods but, while Giants doctors insist that he is over his various injuries, Rams coaches who watched him throw every day during practice suggest otherwise. Those same coaches, by the way, adamantly deny Warner did not get along well with Marc Bulger, the Rams quarterback who replaced him.

But even if Warner is physically whole, the suspicion in many league quarters is that he is at least psychologically wounded, that he isn't the same fearless player in the pocket. He plays, scouts say, with a lower eye level now. Translation: The man who was once totally oblivious to the pass rush, who hung in and took a ton of shots just so he could deliver the ball to an uncovering wideout, now sees every opponent situational pass rusher from the second the guy leaves the bench.

The most pertinent image of Warner, especially in New York, is from his last start. Ironically, it was at Giants Stadium in the 2003 season opener, and Warner was sacked six times, fumbled on a half-dozen occasions and suffered a concussion. That image, of course, is not indelible. The supposedly difficult fans of New York are notorious for their selective amnesia, and the allegedly harsh media is mostly comprised of unabashed homers, so one game-winning touchdown pass can erase a lot of negative memories.

For that to happen, though, Warner has to throw a winning touchdown pass and it seems forever since that has occurred.

Don't ignore, either, that the Giants' first two regular-season games are against the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins. In the 2001 opener, when Warner was with the Rams and facing the Eagles, we can recall Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson starting the contest with a blitz. And not just any blitz. He brought, on the opening snap, both corners, Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor off the edge. Watching through the binoculars, we can recall thinking it was the first time we had ever seen such an exotic maneuver.

It's still three months until the opener but you can bet that Johnson, who is one of the best pressure coordinators in the game, already has conjured up a blitz package as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory. And the new Redskins coordinator, Gregg Williams, is another aggressive coordinator, a Buddy Ryan devotee who favors the "46" defense. The upshot is that, right out of the chute, Warner is going to be tested.

Too bad that, once the season begins, they can't dress him in one of those red "hands off" jerseys he wore in practice Thursday morning.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.