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Inside The NFL

Aug. 19, 2002
Aug. 19, 2002

Table of Contents
Aug. 19, 2002

Inside The NFL

Coming to Grips
The Rams' season could hinge on how Kurt Warner's fragile right
thumb holds up

This is an article from the Aug. 19, 2002 issue Original Layout

Rams quarterback Kurt Warner insists that his throwing hand is
fine, but there's a lump on the thumb that could threaten the
career of one of the biggest stars in the game. "No pain,
nothing--no problem whatsoever," Warner said before a recent
practice in Macomb, Ill. But the fact that the All-Pro
quarterback wore a protective splint on the right thumb for two
months during the off-season to help heal a sprained ligament is
cause to wonder if the thumb can hold up for a five-month
championship run.

Mike Martz says he'll be more vigilant about relieving Warner in
blowouts, but as the St. Louis coach points out, his team didn't
have nearly as many routs in the past two seasons as it did en
route to winning the Super Bowl in 1999. The reality is, Warner
is playing roulette with the Rams' season, especially with John
St. Clair, who has never played an NFL down, as his new right
tackle. "If I get it banged or hit again, you never know," Warner
says.

Warner first injured the thumb seven years ago during his rookie
season in the Arena Football League. "I broke it in a game," he
says, "and instead of putting a cast on it and allowing it to
heal, I played through it." The resulting lump--a calcification of
the bone on the outside of the thumb--stretched a tendon. Then in
the 2001 opener he injured the thumb again, spraining the
ligament when he banged his thumb on the helmet of an Eagles
defender.

"He struggled with it the whole year," says Martz, "but he still
played so well, you'd hardly know it." Warner is 97 passes shy of
1,500, the qualifying line for career records. If he continues to
perform at the level he has in his first four seasons, he will
reach 1,500 with the highest quarterback rating ever (103.0, to
Steve Young's 96.8), the best completion percentage (66.9, to
Young's 64.3) and the most yards per pass attempt (9.02, to Otto
Graham's 8.63). Consider this: No other player who began his NFL
career in the last 45 years has averaged even eight yards per
attempt.

Warner is 40-10 as a starter, but one of his worst days came in
last February's Super Bowl, a 20-17 loss to the Patriots. He
wasn't sharp, throwing two interceptions. When he thinks back to
that game, Warner doesn't point fingers at anyone, not even right
tackle Rod Jones. In the second quarter Jones missed a block on
outside linebacker Mike Vrabel that forced an interception by
cornerback Ty Law, who returned the ball 47 yards for a
momentum-turning early touchdown. "My fault," Warner says. "I've
made that throw with guys in my face a hundred times. It was a
horrible throw."

Look for St. Louis to protect Warner this year by relying more on
their "deuce," or double-tight-end package. That formation, which
aligns Ernie Conwell (265 pounds) and Brandon Manumaleuna (288)
alongside the tackles, should also give Marshall Faulk more
opportunity to run to the outside.

But try as Martz might to shield Warner, the quarterback will
still be exposed to some great pass rushers early on. In the
opener on Sept. 8 the Rams will face the Broncos' Trevor Pryce,
who was converted from tackle to end to take advantage of his
pass-rush ability. In Week 2 the Giants' Michael Strahan, who
sacked Warner four times in last season's meeting, visits St.
Louis. And the next week the Rams go to Tampa to face the
sack-happy Bucs defense.

Ed McCaffrey's Return
Nightmare Almost Over

In the recovery room after surgery to repair his broken left
tibia and fibula last September, Broncos wideout Ed McCaffrey
looked up from his anesthesia-induced haze at a TV set and
watched the World Trade Center disaster unfold. Reliving those
hours recently, McCaffrey said, "It put what had happened to me
in perspective very, very quickly."

McCaffrey is only 19 months removed from the greatest season of
his 12-year career, 101 receptions in 2000. But he is 34 and
coming back from the grotesque leg break, which came during
Denver's Monday-night opener against the Giants. In April the
Broncos drafted his likely successor, speedy Ashley Lelie out of
Hawaii. McCaffrey still favors the leg at times, but on other
occasions--as when he made a leaping, fingertip catch in the end
zone in training camp--he looks like the McCaffrey of old. "I plan
on being in the same shape on the opening day of this season as I
was at the start of last season," he says. "I think I'm going to
have a very good year."

Sapp Versus Keyshawn
What's Fueling The Bucs' Feud

The reason that Tampa Bay stars Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson
don't get along is this: Sapp, who pushed for the organization to
trade for Johnson before the 2000 season, views Keyshawn's
refusal to participate in the club's off-season conditioning
program as a slap in the face of teammates who train together in
Tampa while he's home in California. "In training camp we're
[already] in shape, tuning up for the season," Sapp says, "but
Keyshawn is working himself into shape. He's supposed to be a
leader of this team."

While Sapp works up a sweat just talking about it, Johnson lets
the criticism roll off his back. He says he won't give up his
off-season in California and made that clear to the team from Day
One. And he won't get into any more jousting with Sapp. "He can
if he wants," says Johnson, who led the NFC with 106 catches last
year, "but I'm finished with it."

This summer Sapp is passionate about something else: a potential
role in the offense. Coach Jon Gruden may use him some as either
a tight end or an H-back. It's a smart attempt by Gruden to keep
the defensive tackle stimulated. "I'm not going to do anything
bizarre, but Warren's a great player," Gruden says. "He can do
more than one thing."

Read more from Peter King in his Monday Morning Quarterback at
cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Despite the bum thumb, Warner may soon set new NFL standards for career passing.COLOR PHOTO: ERIC LARS BAKKE/RICH CLARKSON & ASSOC. (MCCAFFREY) McCaffrey had 101 catches in 2000, at least 30 more than in any of his first nine years. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES The vocal Sapp thinks Johnson can set a better example for the Bucs.

Dispatches

You can't overstate how much the Browns will be hurt by the loss
of outside linebacker Jamir Miller, who suffered a season-ending
right Achilles tear in the preseason opener at Minnesota last
Saturday. With 13 sacks and 114 tackles, Miller was one of the
best at his position last season and the only consistent
pass-rush threat that Cleveland has had since returning to the
league in 1999.... It will be stunning if Danny Wuerffel (24
completions in 36 attempts, 369 yards, four touchdowns, no
interceptions in two preseason games) doesn't win the Redskins'
quarterback job.... The only thing keeping Jonathan Wells, a
6'1", 243-pound fourth-round draft pick, from the Texans'
starting tailback job is his tentative running inside. That might
be attributed to his lack of college experience; he started only
15 games at Ohio State. Otherwise, with his straight-up running
style, Wells looks like a mini-Eddie George. "I'm fresh," Wells
says. "There's no reason I can't be an every-down back." ... When
Broncos running back Terrell Davis scratched himself from last
Saturday night's game against the Bears because of swelling in
his left knee (twice operated on over a six-month period), he
sounded like a man on the brink of retirement. "I'm tired," said
Davis, who has missed 32 of Denver's last 49 regular-season and
playoff games with leg injuries.... The Lions are trying to
settle on a quarterback, but the health of their wide receivers
isn't helping them make a decision. Az Hakim, the team's $15
million free-agent acquisition, has missed parts of the
off-season program and training camp with hamstring injuries.
Germaine Crowell has been slow to recover from knee surgery late
last year, and Bill Schroeder, another free-agent pickup, is
battling a right groin strain.