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Golden Arm The Rams' Kurt Warner is putting on the greatest air show in NFL history

Oct. 09, 2000
Oct. 09, 2000

Table of Contents
Oct. 9, 2000

Olympics 2000

Golden Arm The Rams' Kurt Warner is putting on the greatest air show in NFL history

You sit in a dark meeting room at the practice facility of the
St. Louis Rams, watching videotape of the team's 235 plays from
scrimmage in the first four games of this season. You see what
makes Kurt Warner a great passer--accuracy, mostly, along with
toughness, poise and the smarts to run the most prolific offense
the NFL has ever seen. You chart the 135 passes that Warner
threw in those four games and find that 113, or 84%, were
catchable.

This is an article from the Oct. 9, 2000 issue

You call Fox analyst John Madden, who has seen two of Warner's
games this year, and he tells you, "Warner's accuracy reminds me
of Joe Montana. His toughness reminds me of Bobby Layne."

You sit with St. Louis coach Mike Martz, architect of this
high-tech offense, and talk about the success this team has had
since Warner became the quarterback before the start of the 1999
season. This was the losingest NFC team of the '90s, yet Warner
has taken the Rams on a 20-3 ride, including playoffs. "With any
luck, we'd be 23-0 with Kurt," Martz says. "We could have easily
won the three we lost."

You go to Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers at the
Trans World Dome. You see that Warner is throwing even better
than he did in his first four games. You see the trust Martz has
in him: The coach calls for passes on the first 18 plays, and you
can't recall a team going that deep into a game without calling a
running play. Warner completes 13 passes for 201 yards and two
touchdowns and scrambles for a first down on another of those
plays. He's in for eight series--the Rams score four touchdowns
and four field goals--before leaving midway through the third
quarter with a 40-17 lead. Only two throws aren't within the
intended receiver's grasp: On one the man fell and on the other
he was detoured in traffic.

Final stat line: 24 completions in 30 attempts, 390 yards, four
touchdowns, no interceptions. It's a performance that can be
likened to Pedro Martinez's pitching against the Toledo Mud Hens.
The numbers are so good that when you punch them into the
computer to figure out Warner's passer rating for the day, you
get the max, 158.3, a perfect game by football standards.

You walk off the field with Warner. You say, "Just another day at
the office, huh?" He replies, "Not really. Finally I played a
game where I felt good. I haven't felt like I was in a zone this
year until today. I felt comfortable from the start."

You tell him that of the 165 passes he has thrown this year 85%
have been catchable. "What happened on the other 15 percent?" he
says with sincerity. "I want to put those where my guys can catch
'em."

You go into the San Diego locker room and you see a proud
defense, which ranked first in the NFL in 1998 and 12th last
year. That unit is not ashamed of its performance against St.
Louis, despite having been shredded for 614 yards. You search for
the right word to describe the Chargers' attitude, and it comes
to you after chatting up strong safety Rodney Harrison--awestruck.

"Can you imagine a team with the best back in the game, Marshall
Faulk, throwing on every play of the first quarter?" Harrison
says. "Unbelievable. But with that quarterback and those weapons,
who needs to run? This league has never seen anything like this
offense. And Warner, no one's better than him. We watched him on
film all week, and we saw his amazing accuracy, his poise, his
timing with the receivers. He was even better in person.
Tremendous presence in the pocket. The heart to stand in there
and take our best shot. The accuracy to hit his guys in stride so
they can run after the catch. I don't see any defense stopping
him--or them."

Maybe we don't appreciate the greatness before our eyes because
Warner's story was told so many times last year. Or because he
makes playing quarterback in the NFL look so easy. Coming to a
stadium near you! Kurt Warner throws for 375 yards! The Rams
score 40 points! Or because Warner and his teammates are so
unassuming. He doesn't spike the ball at midfield to show up
foes, or give a cameraman the finger. His first 13 months on the
job have been the stuff of myth. Warner, the 1999 league and
Super Bowl MVP, has passed for 6,300 yards and 55 touchdowns,
completed 66.9% of his attempts and put up a 112.4 passer rating,
all NFL bests for a quarterback over his first 21 regular-season
starts.

Is he great because of a remarkable supporting cast, which
includes speedy wideouts Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az Hakim in
addition to the gifted Faulk? Is he great because he operates in
a system that confuses defenses with an array of motion and often
gives him five players to throw to? Is he great because of the
support from a coach who, when Warner throws an interception and
comes to the sideline shaking his head, says, "Hey, no problem.
You were just playing football. It happens." Or is he that
talented?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. Everyone affiliated with this offense has
a hand in its success. "I think it's the best offense in the
history of football," Madden says. The offense would be sorely
diminished without receivers who consistently get open and
without the multidimensional Faulk, who last season set a league
record for yards from scrimmage, with 2,429. Quarterback Trent
Green, whose knee injury in the third preseason game of 1999
opened the door for Warner, had also looked superb running the
offense. That Green and Warner, both journeymen, have excelled is
testament to Martz, the team's offensive coordinator before
succeeding Dick Vermeil this season.

But don't think for a second the Rams' success isn't due mostly
to Warner. An illustration: Video clicker in hand as he sits in
his office, Martz keeps replaying an 80-yard touchdown pass that
Warner threw to Holt against the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 24.
Martz shows it nine times on the big screen, the last in
super-slow motion. "This play," Martz says, "is what makes Kurt
different from anyone else in football."

The game is tied at 10 just before halftime, and St. Louis faces
second-and-10 from its 20. The night before, Martz says, Warner
had told Holt, "If they blitz on this play, and the corner is
sitting there waiting for me to throw quickly so he can pick it
off, you take off." Atlanta does blitz, with 245-pound middle
linebacker Keith Brooking shooting up the middle unblocked.
Warner looks left for Holt. "Now," Martz says, as Brooking is two
slo-mo steps on tape from blowing up Warner, "most guys will take
the sack right here. They'll tuck it in and go down. There's
nowhere to turn. But look at Kurt's head--staring right at Holt,
not flinching. Kurt is waiting for Torry to separate from the
corner. Now he does, and here comes the ball. Perfect throw."

The ball is released a millisecond before Brooking pancakes
Warner. Cornerback Ashley Ambrose, assuming he'll see a short
throw, can only flail as the ball flies past. "Kurt gets killed
by the linebacker," Martz says. "He knew it was coming, but his
courage is unmatched. He knew he had to wait for Holt to make his
adjustment. He knew he had to be accurate enough to put the ball
in there under extreme pressure."

Holt gathers in the knee-high throw and outsprints four Falcons
to the end zone. That's something else that separates this
offense from others: the elusiveness of the St. Louis receivers.
Of the Rams' six touchdown pass plays that have covered more than
60 yards this season, three have come on throws that traveled
fewer than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Warner's
ability to place the ball where his receivers can catch it on the
run is a big reason that the wideouts break off big gainers.
"Nine out of 10 passes," Bruce says, patting his gut, "are right
here. Right on the numbers."

Warner worked on his accuracy after being cut by the Green Bay
Packers during training camp in 1994. He stocked shelves by night
in a Cedar Falls, Iowa, grocery store and threw passes by day to
anyone he could talk into catching them. The 1,646 passes he
tossed in the Arena League and NFL Europe, from 1995 through '98,
didn't hurt either. "It's meaningful that I got cut by Green
Bay," he says. "It's meaningful that I stocked shelves. The work
I had to do, the road I took, is all part of it."

He likes to spread the ball among all his receivers, which forces
the defense to stick to any potential receiver on every play.
Trailing the San Francisco 49ers 10-3 on Sept. 17, the Rams
flooded the secondary with five receivers. Warner's fifth option
was end-of-the-bench wideout Tony Horne, a speedy return
specialist who was on the field to draw a safety from the primary
receivers. "I could run 100 scenarios of how that play would go
and never think I'd throw to Tony," says Warner. But he didn't
like what he saw after scanning the field, and then watched as
the safety came off Horne. Warner threw a strike to Horne for an
18-yard touchdown. All told this year, Warner has completed
passes to as many as nine players in a game, and to no fewer than
six.

Warner is no Steve Young when he scrambles, but like the
precocious Peyton Manning, he's superb at making plays if his
protection breaks down. Flushed left by Atlanta's pass rush, he
sprinted to get out of harm's way, then spied Hakim 27 yards
downfield, between a cornerback and a safety. Warner slowed and
slung the ball across his body on a line, right into Hakim's
numbers. It's the type of play you have to watch six times to
confirm what you thought you saw.

Two days before the San Diego game, you are sitting with Warner,
who's eating soup and a sandwich. You mention that he has put up
better stats through 20 games than any other quarterback in
history (chart, below). You ask, "Can you keep it up?"

You see the wry smile framed by the three-day, salt-and-pepper
beard of a 29-year-old man who has been through a lot to get to
this point. You see a man who is not about to let it get away.
"When I'm out there," he says, "I don't think. I don't fathom. I
play. I never think, Wow. How did I make that throw? Nothing I
have done has surprised me, because it's all within the realm of
my ability. To think that a year from now, two years from now, I
won't be able to do it? That's crazy. I will be the same player.
I think I can play this way for 10 years."

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER COVER On Fire! How Kurt Warner and the Rams' offense are torching the NFLCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER DYNAMIC DUO Warner drives the Rams' offense, but he gets a big assist from players like the versatile Faulk (foreground).TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN IACONO

Broken Record

No player has thrown for more yards in the first five games of a
season than the Rams' Kurt Warner, who has passed for 1,947 yards
this year. Warner is on pace to break a fistful of the NFL's most
meaningful single-season passing records.

WARNER'S
CATEGORY NFL RECORD PROJECTION

Passing yards 5,084 (DAN MARINO, '84 Dolphins) 6,230
Passer rating 112.8 (STEVE YOUNG, '94 49ers) 122.0
Completion percentage 70.6 (KEN ANDERSON, '82 Bengals) 72.1
300-yard games 9 (THREE PLAYERS*) 16
Yards per attempt 11.2 (TOMMY O'CONNELL, '57 Browns) 11.8

*Marino, '84; Warren Moon, '90 Oilers; and Warner, '99

Move Over, Dan

Kurt Warner, who was spectacular in his 21st NFL start on Sunday,
wasn't too shabby in his first 20 either. Here's how his early
career--divided into five-game intervals--stacks up against that of
recently retired Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, arguably the
finest passer the game has seen.

Marino Warner
YARDS TDS INT. YARDS TDS INT.

Starts 1-5 1,177 12 3 1,328 15 3
Starts 6-10 1,104 10 2 1,321 12 4
Starts 11-15 1,442 12 4 1,563 12 4
Starts 16-20 1,587 13 7 1,698 12 9
Totals 5,310 47 16 5,910 51 20