St. Louis Blues
Sidelined by another hand injury, the Rams' Kurt Warner is
battered, beaten and nowhere near the MVP of old

Kurt Warner still has the aura of a rock star. While three
security guards hustled him through the third floor of his
downtown Philadelphia hotel last Saturday night to a meeting with
a Fox TV crew, the Rams quarterback was mobbed by loud, pushy
autograph hounds. "Let him through!" said one yellow-jacketed
security man, who ran interference with a threatening forearm.
Such is the mania that surrounds a two-time NFL MVP, even on the
road and even when he doesn't remotely resemble the player who
inspired all those passionate fans.

You could blame a patchwork line for Warner's struggles, because
he has faced more pressure this year than he ever did in the last
three seasons. In a 10-3 loss to the Eagles on Sunday that all
but eliminated the Rams (5-7) from playoff contention, Warner
was sacked eight times. You could say his poor throws are the
result of a broken right pinky he suffered on Sept. 29. Or you
could say the seven weeks of inactivity because of the injury
explains his rustiness since his return on Nov. 24. But the fact
remains that Warner was 0-4 as a starter with one touchdown and
eight interceptions before he got hurt.

The reason there's not a major quarterback controversy in St.
Louis is that wunderkind passer Marc Bulger, who was 5-0 as a
starter in Warner's absence, badly sprained the index finger on
his throwing hand on Nov. 18 and hasn't played since. Bulger said
on Sunday that he couldn't throw the ball more than 10 yards.
After watching the Eagles game tape, coach Mike Martz said on
Monday that he wasn't convinced Warner could throw the ball very
well either. Although Warner insisted that his hand was fine,
Martz sent him for X-rays, which revealed a hairline fracture at
the base of his right hand. Martz said Jamie Martin would start
this week's game in Kansas City and that Warner will be used only
as the emergency third quarterback.

One play on Sunday showed why Warner is miles from being the
quarterback who led the Rams to two Super Bowls and why the team
has to wonder if he'll ever be that player again. Trailing 10-3
with 10:12 left in the third quarter, Warner had already lost a
fumble and thrown an interception that Eagles cornerback Bobby
Taylor returned 23 yards for a touchdown. On third-and10 from the
Philadelphia 27, wideout Isaac Bruce sprinted toward the end zone
with corner Troy Vincent a step behind. Warner launched a perfect
spiral. "He's still the purest passer in the game," Vincent said
later. "When he threw it, Isaac was wide open." The Warner of
seasons past would have made the completion in his sleep, but
this throw was five feet short, and Bruce had to slow down as he
crossed the goal line. Vincent closed in, leaped and picked off
the pass. "It's simple," Warner said afterward. "If I put the
ball where it needs to be, it's a touchdown."

Warner became the NFL's most accurate quarterback--with the best
passer rating of all time--by throwing a beautiful intermediate
and deep ball to a group of speedy receivers. The wideouts didn't
have to be open by much for Warner to hit them perfectly. Then
for two months during the off-season, he wore a splint on his
right thumb to treat a ligament that was strained last year.
During training camp he said his throwing hand was fine. He said
it again on Sunday, even though the hand was encased in ice
during a postgame interview. But something has been wrong all
along, and Warner has to be candid about his health with Martz,
who has been unwavering in his support. "The biggest thing is
that his short to intermediate accuracy is not as good," says
Broncos director of pro scouting Rick Smith. "His balls tend to
sail, and he's not putting the ball in the catchable places he
used to."

Adds Giants linebacker Mike Barrow, "He doesn't seem as
comfortable in the pocket as he used to be. He's not setting up
the way he did, and he's rushing his throws too much. That messes
up his accuracy. He's such a great touch passer, but when he has
to rush his throws, it's bound to affect that touch."

The Rams have a tough long-term decision to make about Bulger,
the league's highest-rated passer (106.0), who will be an
exclusive-rights free agent after the season. That means St.
Louis only has to tender him an offer to retain his rights. Look
for the Rams to try to sign Bulger to a long-term deal, partly
out of concern about Warner's performance and also because Martz
will be damned if he trades a quarterback who ends up developing
into a great passer somewhere else.

Screens Galore
The Shorter, The Better

If you think you've seen a rise in the number of screen passes,
flares and dump-offs to running backs behind the line of
scrimmage this season, you're right. Just look at how some of the
best offenses are moving the ball. On screens and other short
stuff alone, the Patriots' Tom Brady completed 17 of 18 attempts
for 222 yards and three touchdowns against the Bills last month.
Passers who love to throw downfield, such as Brett Favre, Jeff
Garcia, Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb, all have a lower
yards-per-completion average than they did a year ago.

Favre, in particular, has formed a stronger passing bond with
Ahman Green than he's had with any other back during his 11 years
in Green Bay. Last year Green led the Pack in catches with 62,
and this season he's on pace to catch 65. In a 30-20 win over
Chicago on Sunday, Favre and Green hooked up five times for 45

Why the overall rise in short stuff? Simple: It's a low-risk way
for offensive coordinators to use the passing game to move the

"Seems like Green Bay's got 20 screens they disguise in a bunch
of different ways," says Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. "Ahman
sells it so well, and their linemen wait until the last possible
second before it's thrown. When we played New England, it was the
same thing. Brady's great at it."

Workhorses Run For Rushing Title

The race for the league rushing title is heating up. Last year's
champ, the Chiefs' Priest Holmes, held a 111-yard lead over the
Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson entering last week's games and had
a ho-hum 113 yards in less than three quarters of work in
Sunday's blowout of the Cardinals. Meanwhile, Tomlinson was
piling up 220 yards in an overtime defeat of the Broncos, and the
Dolphins' Ricky Williams was burning the Bills for a
franchise-record 228 yards. Holmes now has a four-yard edge on
Tomlinson (1,322 to 1,318), and Williams is close behind, at
1,284.... The Bengals have never gone winless at home for a
season, but they'll have to beat the Jaguars or the Saints to
avoid that dubious distinction. And for the third time in 12
years it appears Cincinnati is leaning toward taking a
quarterback--it's believed the team likes Marshall's Byron
Leftwich--in the first round of the draft.... The Jaguars trotted
out their third kicker of the season on Sunday (Richie
Cunningham), then watched Steelers rookie free agent Jeff Reed
tie a team record by kicking six field goals (including 46-and
50-yarders) in a 25-23 Pittsburgh victory. Reed had auditioned
for the Jaguars in October.

Read Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback every week at

COLOR PHOTO: TIM SHAFFER/REUTERS Even when Warner was not under pressure, his passes didn't haveany zip. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Garcia is among the passers whose yards per completion are downfrom last year.

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