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Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Warner, Cards have seldom been better

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

 
 Harry How/Getty Images
 Kurt Warner, right, connected with Anquan Boldin six times for 140 yards and 3 scores last Sunday.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Kurt Warner highlights blurred together during the Arizona Cardinals' 31-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Week 2.

Warner to Anquan Boldin for 79, 27 and 16 yards. Warner to Larry Fitzgerald for 75, 31 and 20 yards. Warner to rookie running back Tim Hightower for 20 yards. Warner to third receiver Steve Breaston for 18 yards. Warner to tight end Ben Patrick for 15 yards.

By day's end, Warner had become the first player in NFL history to attempt at least 20 passes, complete at least 75 percent of them and average at least 15 yards every time he threw. Not the first Cardinals player. The first NFL player. Ever.

"What I watched out there today was a hell of a job by Warner," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said afterward.

It's all good in Arizona right now. The Cardinals are 2-0 for the first time in 17 seasons and Warner's numbers suggest he's back to his old MVP form. But when I asked Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley to single out his quarterback's top three plays of the season, Haley pointed to an incomplete pass among them.

Yes, Haley loved the 79-yard touchdown strike to Boldin early in the Miami game. Warner recognized the Dolphins' blitz almost instantly, saw the safety out of position on the weak side and started his throwing motion before Boldin had made it even 7 yards downfield.

Haley also singled out a crucial third-down pass to Steve Breaston on a flag route during an opening-week victory at San Francisco.

But it was one of only five incomplete passes Warner threw against the Dolphins that validated what Warner also showed during the opener: a newfound ability to bail on a play with an eye toward the bigger picture. It's the No. 1 reason Arizona has a chance to sustain its fast start heading into road games against the Washington Redskins and New York Jets.

The Cardinals faced first-and-15 from the Miami 33-yard line when Dolphins defensive end Vonnie Holliday broke through the middle of the Arizona line. Warner, lined up in the shotgun formation, was 9 yards deep when Holliday made contact with the quarterback's right arm.

Warner had fumbled 80 times in 93 career games before this season, but he had both hands on the football this time. And instead of forcing a pass into coverage as the pass rush threatened to pull him down, Warner gathered himself, reset his feet and threw the ball into the ground at Fitzgerald's feet. Andre Goodman, the Dolphins' cornerback, was in position for an easy pick if Warner had tried to do too much.

The drive stalled, but Warner's bailout kept the Cardinals in field-goal range. Neil Rackers' 45-yarder stretched the Arizona lead to 17-0.

"That was a huge play for us," Haley said. "Those are the things that we're talking about, increasing your margin of error so if it doesn't go perfect, we're not in second-and-20 or knocking ourselves out of field-goal range."

The Cardinals are the only team in the league without a turnover this season.

For that and other reasons, they are different from the team that suffered a 21-19 defeat at FedEx Field on Oct. 21 last season. Warner entered that game with a badly injured left elbow. The Cardinals weren't sure if he would play. The elbow was so bad that coach Ken Whisenhunt sent backup Tim Rattay into the game in goal-line situations, figuring Warner would have trouble operating within the tighter formations.

Arizona might have won if Warner hadn't thrown two interceptions, including one the Redskins returned for a touchdown. Those are the plays Haley is referencing when he talks about increasing the margin for error.

Warner has usually been able to put up impressive stats. The perfect passer rating he achieved against the Dolphins in Week 3 was the third of his career. The league named him the NFC's offensive player of the week.

That's all great for Warner and the Cardinals, but I would single out two stats beyond those covered in the passer rating. Warner finished the game with no fumbles, and he took only two sacks, a manageable number.

The pressure on Warner to make plays figures to grow as the Cardinals play in hostile environments on the East Coast over the next two weeks. Warner will need help. Haley wants the offensive line to improve its run blocking on the second level. I want to see how the Arizona defense -- ranked among the NFL's top 10 in yards, points, third-down defense and red-zone defense -- holds up against better offenses.

But mostly I want to see if Warner can keep this up. Like recent Cardinals teams, he has seldom been better.