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Leitch: How Tom Coughlin Was Wrong, and Right, About Kurt Warner

On November 14, 2004, the general consensus was that the Arizona Cardinals had ended Kurt Warner’s career as a starting NFL quarterback. Warner was playing for the Giants then, and the Cardinals sacked him six times en route to a 17–14 victory at the old Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. It was the second loss in a row for Tom Coughlin’s team, dropping them to 5–4. They would lose their next six, but Warner couldn’t be blamed for that. Coughlin benched him for rookie Eli Manning right after the game.

As the week’s worth of hype begins for Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIII between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Warner’s Arizona Cardinals, it’s worth remembering Warner’s brief time with the Giants. After being pushed aside in St. Louis for Marc Bulger, Warner came to the Giants ostensibly as a placeholder for Manning, but that Giants team had hopes of its own, buoyed by a 5–2 start. He didn’t actually play that poorly in New York — he had far superior stats that season to Manning — but the perception was that he was over his head in the big city, and his time had passed. And that Manning needed to start playing immediately to prepare for his role as the Future of the Franchise. Warner was upset at the time, but, as is his wont, handled it with aplomb. Manning told the Arizona Republic this year, “I think he understood what was going on but he was very helpful to me. Because of the way he acted it made it easier on me.”

A month after Warner was benched by the Giants, Michael Lewis described Coughlin’s thinking in his famous New York Times Magazine cover story on Eli Manning:

Anyone who watched the game on TV might well have come to the same conclusion: these fellows on the Giants line appeared to be perfectly incompetent. Poor Warner was doing all he could. But Coughlin wasn’t sure. He went into the office in the wee hours of the morning and studied the game tapes … Coughlin had timed every pass play — all 37 of them — and discovered that 30 times Warner held the ball for 3.8 seconds or more. (Depending on how many steps the quarterback drops back to pass, 1.2 to 3 seconds is considered the norm.) Often Giants receivers were open and Warner wasn’t seeing them. The quarterback was more to blame for the sacks than the people assigned to protect him. And one thing Coughlin had noticed in practice about Eli Manning was that, unlike most rookie quarterbacks, he made decisions quickly and got the ball away before the defense could kill him.

By the end of the season it was clear: Eli Manning was the future, and Kurt Warner was toast. The Cardinals signed Warner as a stopgap, only to bench him for rookie Matt Leinart before the 2006 season was over. But Eli was struggling in East Rutherford, too. It looked like Coughlin’s benching of Warner had worked out terribly for both parties. As it turns out, it was the best thing that could have happened for everybody.

Whatever your thoughts about Manning’s playoff performance against the Eagles, he is a Super Bowl MVP and is about to be one of the highest-paid players in the game. And after Warner went to Arizona, Leinart eventually imploded in a keg-party haze, and Warner found himself in charge of one of the most explosive offenses in football, playing in conditions perfect for his talents. In New York, Warner was washed up. Now he’s looking like a lock for the Hall of Fame.

Coughlin might have been right about Eli, but it’s far from certain he was right about Warner. One of the keys to Warner’s success with the Cardinals has been how quickly he’s able to get rid of the ball. (Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, when he named Warner in the preseason, said this was one of the main reasons he went with him over Leinart.) The Cardinals’ offensive line is competent, but inferior to the Giants’. The reason Warner threw for 4,583 yards and 30 touchdowns this season — more TDs than any Giants quarterback has thrown for in 45 years — is because he delivers the ball to the Cardinals’ outstanding receiver core of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston before the pass rush can meet him. If Coughlin was concerned about Warner missing open receivers back in 2004, that hasn’t been a problem this year. (This also might have a lot to do with offensive coordinator Matt Todd Haley’s schemes, which are more unpredictable and route-oriented than the Giants’ were in 2004.)

It’s difficult to blame Coughlin too much, though. Even in an offensive scheme more suited to his talents, it’s unlikely that Warner would have had the same success in East Rutherford. Warner’s best seasons have come in warm weather and domes, and if you saw him struggle in Philadelphia and New England late in the season, you know even the slightest change in conditions can derail his whole game. In the playoffs, the Cardinals played two games in their home dome and one in the relative warmth of Charlotte. That wouldn’t have been the case in New York.

And Warner is as bizarre a historic anomaly as you’ll find in sports. He’s probably going to the Hall of Fame even though he’s had only three years in which he started more than twelve games. With any team that wasn’t perfectly suited to his talents, he collapsed. He’s basically the sports equivalent of Naughty by Nature having two separate one-hit wonders, “O.P.P” in 1991 and “Hip Hop Hooray”in 1996, and then never doing anything else of note. But just as Naughty by Nature gets to keep those gold records, Warner gets to keep the Super Bowl ring. And if the Cardinals can win Sunday, one Tom Coughlin benching on a hot day in the desert back in 2004 may have laid the path for two separate Super Bowl champions. No one involved would have it any other way.

Leitch: How Tom Coughlin Was Wrong, and Right, About Kurt Warner