The Marked Man IN ST. LOUIS Embattled Kurt Warner needs a return to MVP form to win back Rams fans and teammates

August 31, 2003

A preppy goes into a bar and walks up to an NFL star talking on
a cellphone. The two men get into a heated discussion about
health, integrity and the pursuit of Super Bowls.... If you're
waiting for a punch line, forget it. This isn't a joke.

The preppy, who looks as if he stepped out of a J. Crew catalog,
was a St. Louis Rams fan. The bar was J. Buck's, a hot spot in
suburban St. Louis, on a chilly evening late last November. The
football player was the Rams' future Hall of Fame running back
Marshall Faulk. The topic was quarterback Kurt Warner and the
controversy surrounding his suddenly not-so-golden right arm.

"Yo, Marshall," the preppy said by way of introduction, pushing
forward so excitedly that he spilled Grey Goose and tonic on
Faulk's size-11 Pradas. "Warner's got to go!"

"Really?" Faulk replied, bristling, his phone call having been
abruptly ended. "You think you know football, huh?"

"Yeah, I do, and he's killing you guys," the preppy continued.
"The kid's much better."

Faulk, who argues with the subtlety of a White Stripes guitar
riff, started to boil. "Look," he said, "Kurt wants what I want.
He wants what you want. And that's for the Rams to win." He
reminded the preppy that Warner had played hurt in recent years
yet had won one Super Bowl, led the Rams into a second title game
and won a pair of league MVP awards at the same time. "When he
had two bad ribs and still got us that ring," Faulk said, "I
didn't see you complaining then."

The preppy held his ground. "Yeah? Well if you want to win now,
you'd better hope they give the damn ball to Marc Bulger," he
said, "because Kurt Warner is D-O-N-E, done!"

What Faulk said next was littered with words that sounded
suspiciously like his surname.

Recounting the incident months later, Faulk said, "Trust me,
there were a lot of guys in a lot of bars who shared their
thoughts on Kurt. I probably got into it with most of them."

Kurtis Eugene Warner does not go to bars, but contrary to popular
belief he is not a total square. He and his wife, Brenda, do not
spend every waking minute quoting Bible verses while consuming
milk and cookies. Late in July, a couple of weeks after
celebrating his 32nd birthday, the quarterback sat in the kitchen
of his Chesterfield, Mo., home, sounding downright cocky about
the upcoming season. "This is the best my arm has felt in years,"
he said, "and I can't wait to show everyone that the Rams are
back."

Brenda, however, preferred to discuss last season and the
backlash against her and Kurt while the Rams were falling from
Super Bowl favorites to 7-9 washouts. The spunky former Marine,
so prominently singled out by cameras in telecasts of St. Louis
games and on stadium video screens, rolled her eyes in dismay. "I
know people think we're overdone," she said. "Even we think we're
overdone. We wonder, When are people going to get sick of us?"

It appears their popularity is directly related to Kurt's
performance on the field. From 1999 through 2001, as he rose from
obscurity to lead the Rams on some of the greatest offensive
displays in NFL history, most St. Louis fans couldn't get enough
of the Warners. Then came the Crash of 2002 and the couple's
plunge into disfavor.

As Warner prepares for his sixth NFL season, no other player in
the league is under greater scrutiny. If he returns as the bold
and brilliant passer in command of the Rams' souped-up offense,
the team will regain its status as a championship contender. If
he comes back as the skittish and mistake-prone player he turned
into beginning with St. Louis's shocking loss to the New England
Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, get ready for a quarterback
controversy. And it will be even nastier than last year's when
Warner was plagued by injuries to his throwing hand; the sudden
emergence of Bulger, another formerly anonymous passer who
flourished in coach Mike Martz's offense, had people all over
town (including players in the Rams' locker room) taking sides;
and Brenda made an infamous phone call to a St. Louis radio talk
show, bringing Martz's honesty into question. At that point one
Ram said, Warner "went from being a franchise quarterback to just
a quarterback."

As a disappointing season wound down, Martz, who--outside of
Brenda--had been Warner's staunchest supporter, declared there
would be an open competition for the quarterback job in '03.
(Martz later announced that Warner would be the starter.) Then,
last February, Martz and members of the front office debated
whether to pay Warner a $6 million roster bonus or release or
trade him.

As that was playing out, the Warners hit the road. Kurt, Brenda
and their four kids, ages two to 14, rented a tour bus once owned
by Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, hired a driver and embarked on
an eight-day, loosely charted trip through the Southeast. Along
the way they experienced some sweet emotion--"It was the best
vacation we've ever had," Kurt says--and had some bittersweet
thoughts that another family journey, to a new NFL city, might be
imminent.

Warner believed he'd return to the Rams, especially after his
hand and shoulder had checked out O.K. in an extensive postseason
exam. ("They were convinced my rotator cuff was torn," Warner
says of the club's higher-ups, "and I was anxious to prove it
wasn't.") However, there had been no announcement that the team
would pick up the roster bonus. Denver Broncos coach Mike
Shanahan, for one, was hoping the Rams wouldn't. "If they were
going to get rid of him," Shanahan said during training camp,
"there was a guy over here who would've taken him in a second."

In the end the Rams decided to keep Warner, convinced that his
arm was sound. Six months later all is apparently well in St.
Louis. Warner's throwing hand, which has sustained three
fractures (one in 2000 and two last year) and a sprained thumb,
has mended. So, too, apparently, has the relationship between
Warner and Martz, who says, "Kurt's one of the kindest, sweetest
people there is. He went through a very difficult time last
season, and I didn't help him much." Asked whether Warner is
vulnerable to losing his job to Bulger, Martz says, "No. Kurt
Warner is our quarterback. If he falters, he's still our
quarterback."

What went wrong in 2002? In a nutshell, everything. Injuries to
Faulk, fullback James Hodgins and tackle Orlando Pace derailed
the Greatest Show on Turf, which also suffered from the
free-agent defection of No. 3 receiver Az-Zahir Hakim. St.
Louis's defense fell off, too, and, says Martz, "I probably
didn't do a very good job of coaching." As for Warner, his rapid
decline defied logic. Consider that from 1999 through 2001 he
threw 98 touchdown passes against 53 interceptions and compiled a
103.4 passer rating. Last year, in what amounted to a little more
than five games' worth of action, he had three touchdowns, 11
interceptions and a 67.4 rating. After winning 40 of 50 career
starts, Warner went 0-6 in 2002.

But even before breaking his right pinkie early in the Rams'
Sept. 29 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Warner lacked the normal zip
on his passes, and there were rumors among teammates that his arm
was shot. Bulger, meanwhile, looked like the old
Warner--cocksure, cool in the pocket and winging the ball with
scary precision. In leading St. Louis to five consecutive
victories after the team had started 0-5--and setting an NFL
record with 1,496 passing yards in his first five starts--Bulger
had many fans, and some teammates, believing that he should
remain in the lineup even after Warner was cleared to return.

While sidelined, Warner offered encouragement to Bulger, but the
negativity surrounding his eventual return riled him. "I had done
it for three years," he says, "and to think that in three games
all that changes? That's ludicrous."

When Warner returned to the starting lineup against the
Washington Redskins on Nov. 24, he showed flashes of his old
self. He completed 34 of 49 passes for 301 yards and was in the
process of producing a dramatic comeback victory when he was
stripped at the Washington six-yard line by blitzing linebacker
LaVar Arrington. The Redskins recovered the fumble with 17
seconds remaining, icing a 20-17 victory.

After the game it was Warner's throwing hand that needed ice. He
had apparently reinjured his passing hand while falling to the
ground, and in practice the following week he couldn't take a
snap. Instead someone handed Warner the ball, and despite severe
swelling, he was able to fling it 50 yards with reasonable
velocity and accuracy. "It's like we were all in denial," Warner
says. "No one, including me, wanted to believe [the hand] could
be broken."

The next game, against the Philadelphia Eagles, was a disaster as
Warner threw two costly interceptions in a 10-3 loss. With a 5-7
record, St. Louis's season was essentially over, and Warner knew
his hand wasn't right. From that point on things started getting
ugly.

Warner says he informed a team doctor on the flight home from
Philadelphia that he wanted to get the hand X-rayed. The
following afternoon Martz told reporters that he had suggested
the X-ray, which revealed a broken bone below the pinkie. The
next morning Brenda was driving to a kickboxing class when she
heard St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell and radio
personality John Maracek discussing the injury on sports-talk
station KFNS. Burwell and Maracek debated whether Warner's
insistence that he'd been healthy enough to play against the
Eagles would affect Martz's ability to trust him in the future.
Brenda immediately placed a cellphone call to the station and was
put on the air. Martz, Brenda said, "did not insist that Kurt get
an X-ray.... [Martz] had nothing to do with it. All week long
[before the Eagles game] I said, 'Kurt, I am a [former] nurse,
you should get an X-ray.'"

After saying her piece, Brenda called Kurt and blurted, "You want
me in that foxhole, right?" Then she explained what she had done.
Kurt felt his wife had merely defended his integrity. "The point
is," he says, "I never lied about anything, and as a Christian
role model, that's not something I'd ever want people to believe
I would do. Last year was a difficult year for all of us, and the
pressure got to a lot of people."

Whatever the truth as to who asked for the X-ray (Martz stood by
his statement), the talk-show incident did not play well in the
St. Louis locker room, where resentment of Brenda's high profile
had already been building. Privately several players said Kurt
should address his teammates about Brenda's call to the radio
station as a way to smooth things over. Warner sought the advice
of teammates, including tight end Ernie Conwell, his closest
friend on the team. "I advised him against addressing the team,
because I think he would have ended up making it a bigger issue,"
recalls Conwell, now with the New Orleans Saints. "The team was
in a funny place. A lot of the married guys understood, because
everybody's wife wants to stand up for him. But there were a lot
of guys who think women should just stay out of these things."

The ridicule of Brenda extended beyond St. Louis. During the
playoffs a high-ranking executive with one AFC team referred to
her as "Yoko Warner."

Over the course of several conversations, Warner and Martz
repaired their relationship, and Brenda reached out to the coach.
Warner had a shaky first day of minicamp in May--"I was so bad, I
started to wonder, What if I really have lost it?" Warner
says--but in training camp he looked enough like the quarterback
who led the Rams to two Super Bowls that his teammates were
impressed. "Guys were divided on him and [Bulger] last year, and
there's still some division," says one veteran, "but Kurt has
shown us that he's back."

Says Faulk, "Kurt has delivered for us under pressure time and
time again, and he deserves to be our leader until he proves
otherwise."

In St. Louis's second preseason game, against the Super
Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their top-ranked defense,
Warner completed all seven of his passes, for 55 yards. Then
against the Buffalo Bills last Saturday, he completed 13 of 15
passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. Warner expects to continue
playing at that level throughout the season, to be named the
league's Comeback Player of the Year and, most important, to make
another title run.

As he sat in his house that July day, Warner laughed as he
recounted the time last fall his 11-year-old daughter, Jesse,
came home from school and, prompted by a classmate's barb, asked
Brenda, "Does Daddy suck?"

Recalled Kurt, "I was like, 'Well, right now he does, but it
won't last long.'" Smiling confidently again, he said, "I know
there are still doubters."

Of course, the first time Warner throws an interception or fails
to deliver in the final minute or has a lousy game, preppies and
other fans in bars all over St. Louis will be calling for Bulger
to replace him. Perhaps there will be similar talk among his
teammates, but Warner dismisses such conjecture.

"I've never been this pumped up about a season," he said, his
right hand twitching with excitement. "If you told me that I'll
stay healthy, and most of our key players will stay healthy...."
He broke off the sentence, then grabbed his left hand and began
toying with a ring, thinking about Super Bowl XXXVIII. "Well," he
continued, "let's just say I'd be planning on getting another one
of these."

Should the Rams start Kurt Warner or Marc Bulger at quarterback?
To cast your vote, go to si.com/magazine.

Look for Michael Silver's Open Mike column every Thursday at
si.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER TEST OF FAITH Players took sides in last year's quarterback controversy, but Warner believes he can rally his troops. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER QUARTERBACK OPTION Bulger (in cap) looks like a star in the making, but Martz (left) is standing by Warner as his starter. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER GOOD OMEN Warner looked like his old self last Saturday, hitting on 13 of 15 passes in the face of a strong Buffalo pass rush. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER CAMERA FRIENDLY Brenda was front and center during Kurt's rise to stardom, but her act has worn thin with some Rams.

"This is THE BEST MY ARM HAS FELT IN YEARS," Warner says as he
begins his sixth year, "and I can't wait to show everyone that
the Rams are back."

"I know people think we're overdone," says Brenda. "Even we think
we're overdone. We wonder, When are people GOING TO GET SICK OF
US?"

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