Warner finally on solid ground in Arizona

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When the Arizona Cardinals opened training camp this past summer, Kurt Warner wasn't their starting quarterback. When he led the Cardinals to a 7-3 start, his future remained clouded in uncertainty. And when he started the NFC Championship Game, some quietly wondered whether it would be his last game in a Cardinals uniform.

You will hear and read a lot about Warner in the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLIII. One topic, however, now seems fairly moot. Although he is a 37-year-old pending free agent with a hotshot backup, Warner appears a near-lock to return as the Cardinals' starter in 2009. It's a unique denouement for a quarterback who now must be considered among the best of his generation, but Warner is no doubt used to it.

It's been 10 seasons since Warner led the St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV, and he soon will become the second quarterback in NFL history to start the big game for two franchises. In the interim, however, Warner has traveled such a winding road that he choked up Sunday as he tried to describe it.

"It's been a journey," he said. "It's just amazing."

Warner's scintillating performance in the NFC title game was an exclamation point on a season that re-established him as one of the NFL's most dangerous passers. After producing his best regular-season performance in seven years, Warner completed 21 of 28 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns in the Cardinals' 32-25 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

The performance should erase the doubts that have hovered over Warner during the past two seasons in Arizona, where coach Ken Whisenhunt twice has tried to replace him with youngster Matt Leinart. But Warner took over in 2007 after Leinart suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, and this past summer, he beat out Leinart in an open training camp competition.

But because the Cardinals made no known effort to sign Warner to a contract extension during the season, speculation arose that Whisenhunt once again would turn to Leinart next season. It's hard to imagine the Cardinals taking that path now.

Warner has addressed two issues at Whisenhunt's request. He reduced his fumbles total from seven in 2007 to two in 2008, while slightly lowering his sack percentage from 4.4 last season to 4.3 in 2008.

"Kurt, to his credit, has really worked hard this year," Whisenhunt said. "I think for a veteran who played the way that he played last season, to not be named the starter for this season had to be very difficult. But there was never any complaint. … A lot of times he does things a lot of older quarterbacks don't want to do, and that's a credit to his humility and his competitive drive and the reason we are here today."

That Warner is playing for the Cardinals is a testament to the winding path his career took after his early stardom in St. Louis. The New York Giants signed him in 2004 as a seat-warmer for rookie quarterback Eli Manning, and he made it through nine games before the Giants inserted Manning into the lineup.

By then, only one team was willing to give the former MVP a chance to start: the Cardinals, who had suffered through six consecutive losing seasons when they signed Warner in 2005.

"When you believe in yourself, you believe that you can make a difference wherever you go," Warner said. "…I was just looking for that one team that said, 'We still believe in Kurt Warner.' I'm fortunate the Arizona Cardinals took a chance with me, and hopefully after four years, it's paid off just a little bit."

Many people will credit the Cardinals' Pittsburgh Steelers connection for instilling a championship mindset into a woebegone franchise; Whisenhunt and assistant head coach Russ Grimm both won Super Bowl XL as assistants with the Steelers. But Warner almost certainly deserves some of that credit as well, having provided credible guidance to a group of players who knew little about winning big games.

"He just shows everyone how to be a pro and lead," cornerback Ralph Brown said.

And the seeds of this season's playoff run might have been sowed back in January 2008, when Warner and offensive coordinator Todd Haley sat down for a postseason review. With an emerging offensive line and a strong nucleus of receivers, Warner suggested the Cardinals were closer than even they might realize.

"He and I sat there back in January of last year," Haley said. "We said, 'We can do something special.' We just looked at each other said, 'We've got to do it. We've got to overcome.' We set a goal that we were not doing to be denied, and we set that in January."

Warner has done precisely that, cementing his status in NFL history. Can there be a more impressive task than quarterbacking the Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl?

"This one is special," Warner said. "This one is sweet and I'm going to enjoy every bit of it. I know how long it's been since my last one, and you never know if you're going to get another one."

Kevin Seifert covers the NFL for ESPN.com.