NFC West: Kurt Warner

2014 Predictions: Seattle Seahawks

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
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ESPN.com Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.

Week 1: Green Bay Packers

All the pregame hype will center around the so-called Inaccurate Reception, the controversial Hail Mary catch by Golden Tate two years ago that won the game over the Packers at Seattle on a Monday night. Tate has moved on to Detroit, but the Seahawks now have too many weapons for the Packers to stop, no Hail Mary required. Prediction: Win


Week 2: at San Diego Chargers

The Chargers better hope they play a lot better than they did in the preseason game at Seattle, a 41-14 victory for the Seahawks on Aug. 15. San Diego will play better, but not good enough to beat a much better team. Prediction: Win


Week 3: Denver Broncos

The Broncos and their fans got a tiny bit of meaningless Super Bowl revenge in the preseason opener with a 21-16 victory over the Seahawks in Denver. Enjoy it while it lasts, boys. Repeating that outcome in Seattle is not an option. Prediction: Win


Week 5: at Washington Redskins

Traveling coast to coast to play on the road for a Monday night game is a tough task against any NFL opponent, and even tougher against quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the Seahawks catch a break in this one by coming off a bye week with plenty of time to prepare and be fresh for the journey. Prediction: Win


Week 6: Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Seattle a little bulletin-board material last month when he said the Seahawks were to blame for the increase in penalty flags during the preseason. There won't be near enough flags against Seattle for the Cowboys to win this one. Prediction: Win


Week 7: at St. Louis Rams

Any division game in the NFC West is a rugged battle. The Rams have a defensive line that gave the Seahawks problems a year ago. But they aren't strong enough overall to beat Seattle, even at home in their out-of-date dome. Prediction: Win


Week 8: at Carolina Panthers

The Seahawks were fortunate to win the season opener at Charlotte a year ago. That Panthers team was better than this one, but back-to-back road games against very physical defensive teams will end the Seattle winning streak. Prediction: Loss


Week 9: Oakland Raiders

Coming off their first loss of the season and returning home against an outmanned opponent, is there any doubt? Prediction: Win


Week 10: New York Giants

The Seahawks easily defeated the Giants 23-0 last year in New Jersey, a dress rehearsal for their Super Bowl victory at the same location -- MetLife Stadium. The Seahawks won't need a rehearsal to roll past the Giants in this one. Prediction: Win


Week 11: at Kansas City Chiefs

This likely will be a low-scoring game between two strong defensive teams. Odds are against any team that has to try to win by matching its defense against the Seahawks' D. Prediction: Win


Week 12: Arizona Cardinals

The last time the Cardinals played at CenturyLink Field was last December when they handed the Seahawks a 17-10 loss. That won't happen again unless the Seahawks get caught looking ahead to the 49ers game. The Seahawks don't look ahead. Prediction: Win


Week 13: at San Francisco 49ers

It's a Thanksgiving night, national TV game in the 49ers' shiny new stadium against the hated Seahawks. If San Francisco can't win this one, its time as a championship contender is over. Prediction: Loss


Week 14: at Philadelphia Eagles

This is the toughest part of the season for the Seahawks with back-to-back road games against likely playoff contenders. But the 10 days between games will help and be enough of a cushion to keep Seattle from losing two in a row. Prediction: Win


Week 15: San Francisco 49ers

This is a game that could decide which team wins the NFC West. No way the Seahawks lose to the 49ers twice in three weeks, especially not in front of a rabid full house of 12s. Prediction: Win


Week 16: at Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals probably will be fighting for a playoff spot, and the Seahawks already will be in at 12-2. That difference will be just enough for Arizona to win at home in the same stadium where the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl a few weeks later. Prediction: Loss


Week 17: St. Louis Rams

For the second consecutive year, the Rams close the regular season in Seattle. And for the second consecutive year, the Seahawks will beat them without much trouble. Prediction: Win


Predicted Record: 13-3

Kurt WarnerChris Morrison/USA TODAY SportsDuring his time with the Arizona Cardinals, quarterback Kurt Warner not only revived his career but changed expectations inside the organization.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Kurt Warner had heard the stories about playing for the Arizona Cardinals.

How tough it was to win in the desert, where careers, like snowbirds, went for retirement. He also heard about team owner Bill Bidwill’s frugality. Tough, actually, might have been an understatement even for one of the most famous overachievers in NFL history. Wins in Arizona were almost as rare as rain. Before Warner arrived in Arizona in 2005, the Cardinals’ last winning season was 1998. The one before that was 1984.

Warner was three years removed from his last Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams and had won five games in that span, with the New York Giants, before he signed with Arizona. At 34, the optimist in him wasn’t ready to retire. Two NFL MVP awards, two Super Bowls that produced one title and success in the Arena Football League and college affirmed his belief he could change the fortunes of another franchise.

“You have success very quickly and very early and you kinda assume, ‘We can do that wherever we go,’” said Warner, who after leading the Cardinals to their only Super Bowl in 2009, will be inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime of Monday night’s game against San Diego. “So, I kinda had that mentality that I thought when I got there, ‘You know, maybe this is a match made in heaven. Everyone thinks I’m out and nobody expects anything from the Cardinals, so together we could do something special.’”

Warner I kinda had that mentality that I thought when I got there, 'You know, maybe this is a match made in heaven. Everyone thinks I'm out and nobody expects anything from the Cardinals, so together we could do something special.

-- Kurt Warner, former Cardinals quarterback
It sounded good but Warner realized early in 2005 it wasn’t going to be that easy. Warner joined a locker room that didn’t have an identity, said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was in his second year when Warner came on board.

Warner learned quickly the Cardinals didn’t believe they could win. It went deeper, however. The organization and the community didn’t believe it either. Arizona’s current general manager, Steve Keim, who was part of the Cardinals’ scouting department when Warner was signed, said Warner’s early teams hoped to win, instead of expecting to win.

Mediocrity was the norm. Nobody, Warner said, expected to be the one to make a game-winning play.

“I just don’t think they understood what greatness looked like,” he said. “Those first couple years were struggles because you just felt it. You’d feel the air go out of a team when certain things would happen.”

With Warner, the Cardinals finally had a stabilizing presence, Fitzgerald said. He was someone who demanded excellence, Keim added. His burning desire to win was infectious, said center Lyle Sendlein, who joined the team in 2007. But to pull Arizona out of the mire of mediocrity, Warner needed to play. It was a battle he’d fight through the beginning of 2008, when he led Arizona to Super Bowl XLIII.

He made the Cardinals the best passing offense in the NFL in 2005 despite winning just five games. Warner said there was progress, but Arizona needed to win for the locker room to buy into what he was selling.

In 2006, the franchise drafted Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart out of USC. Warner sensed he was being looked at as another washed-up, past-his-prime quarterback. When he was benched by former Cardinals coach Dennis Green four games into 2006 after going 1-3, Warner contemplated retirement.

“It wore me out,” he said. “It was frustrating. There were moments when I got benched for Matt that I was like, ‘Is this even worth it? Maybe I should retire now. I am so frustrated.’ You come into the situation feeling like you’re invincible, that you can turn any organization around.

“I wanted it to be more of an overnight fix than something that would’ve taken three years.”

When Ken Whisenhunt took over in 2007, he inherited a frustrated Warner. But a new coach with a new plan was what Warner needed.

“I think they already moved on [from Warner],” said Whisenhunt, now the head coach of the Tennessee Titans. “Matt was our guy and Kurt was just there. That was the feeling I had.”

Besides bringing in his own coaching staff, Whisenhunt brought a proven blueprint for winning from the Pittsburgh Steelers. After all, he had helped Pittsburgh win a Super Bowl as its offensive coordinator in 2006.

Whisenhunt implemented a dress code on road trips, outlawed food during meetings and started holding players accountable for being on time. That was enough for Warner to want to hitch his wagon to Whisenhunt.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesKurt Warner led the Cardinals to the franchise's only Super Bowl appearance.
“We had a chance to kinda start anew,” Warner said. “I felt like if I can get in at that point with the pieces we had, that there was going to be a chance to salvage this thing.”

Whisenhunt could see Warner wasn’t done, but in order to earn snaps, Warner had to do two things: Put two hands on the ball because he had been fumbling and move in the pocket to cut down on sacks.

Warner and Leinart platooned in 2007, with Warner taking the no-huddle offense. It allowed him to flourish and earn respect without being responsible for wins and losses. The turning point of Warner’s career in Arizona came during Week 3, three games before he became the full-time starter. Down 23-6 at Baltimore heading into the fourth quarter, Warner led Arizona on 17-0 run to tie the game before the Ravens won in the final seconds. The outcome didn’t matter as much as Warner’s performance.

“That was the first game where I think everybody’s eyes kinda perked up,” Warner said. “We’ve never done that since I’ve been here.

“That was the first time that people in that organization had ever been around that. I think that’s what really sparked what was able to happen the next three years.”

Warner became the starter in Week 6, after Leinart got hurt, and led Arizona to an 8-8 record.

“I firmly believe if we would’ve rolled with him in 2007, Whiz’s first year, we would’ve definitely made the playoffs that year,” Fitzgerald said.

Warner, who called the last half of 2007 some of the best football he HAs ever played, sensed there was a newfound belief because of consistency. He walked into Whisenhunt’s office after the season and said he wanted the job. Whisenhunt hesitated to hand it over and another preseason quarterback battle awaited Warner. This time he won the job.

Warner said the Cardinals didn’t enter the 2008 season thinking they would win the Super Bowl but they knew they could play with any team in the league.

“All the expectations were there,” Warner said. “That was a step up from what we believed before that.”

Arizona won the NFC West for the first time and got into the playoffs because of a 7-3 start, but Warner wasn’t convinced his teammates knew how to win. He thought they could be headed to a one-and-done showing in the playoffs.

“We’re going to lose the first game because nobody has any bigger expectations for our team,” he said.

Fitzgerald, who estimated 10 Cardinals had playoff experience, said Warner took it upon himself to get the Cardinals ready for the playoffs. He told them how to prepare, how different the atmosphere would be and how manage the roller coaster of emotions.

Arizona went on one of the most surprising playoff runs in NFL history, punctuated by a 20-point win at second-seeded Carolina in the divisional round, after which Warner gave his famous “Let’s shock the world” speech.

At the Super Bowl three weeks later, Warner sat back and watched his teammates. To him, it was old hat. But to them, and to the organization, the Super Bowl had been a mythical place.

“I think getting there, it sunk in as they were enjoying the Super Bowl and taking it all in,” he said. “This is what it’s all about. This is what greatness looks like.”

Arizona came back the next year poised to make another Super Bowl run and had the team to do it, going 10-6 and winning the division for a second straight year. Defensive end Calais Campbell, who was a rookie on the Super Bowl team, said the 2009 team believed it could win every game. But a loss to New Orleans in the divisional round ended Arizona’s run and Warner’s career. He retired less than two weeks later.

His work was done. Warner had transformed the Cardinals from an organization that accepted mediocrity to one that expected winning. It took five seasons and two head coaches to do it, but Warner left a legacy of high expectations and a belief in winning.

Arizona returned to mediocrity for the three years following Warner’s retirement, going 5-11, 8-8 and 5-11 before Whisenhunt was fired. But Warner passed his winning mindset to Fitzgerald, Sendlein, Campbell and Dockett, who are passing it along to the current crop of Cardinals, hopefully leading to “sustainable success” as Keim put it.

“Once I left, there was great frustration in being mediocre and that wasn’t there before, at least from an entire organization, an entire team standpoint,” Warner said. “It was just accepted. It wasn’t accepted after the run that we made and I think that was the coolest part.”
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- This year's Hall of Fame festivities wrapped up over the weekend with the annual preseason opener between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills.

For St. Louis Rams fans, the most memorable part of the weekend was the stirring Saturday night speech from former Ram Aeneas Williams. Williams has a close bond to St. Louis, where he still keeps a home and is pastor at a local church. Still, Williams is generally best remembered for his time with the Arizona Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceKurt Warner and three of his 'Greatest Show on Turf' teammates will appear on the Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year.
But if things break the right way, the next few years could provide plenty of opportunities for Rams fans to celebrate and reminisce about the glory days. That's because four of the primary stars of the "Greatest Show on Turf" will first appear on the ballot beginning this year. Quarterback Kurt Warner, receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and left tackle Orlando Pace are first-time nominees this year.

I spoke to a handful of voters on each player's chances. While it's a small sample size, here's the impressions I came away with and a link to the case for each player:

Warner -- The one thing that apparently could hold Warner back is there still seems to be some trepidation about his body of work, or lack thereof. But it sounds like Warner is going to get in, probably sooner than later and might even end up as a first-ballot entry. One thing that works heavily in his favor, aside from the prolific numbers he put up in a short time, is the fact he took two previously moribund franchises to the Super Bowl and won one in St. Louis. Of the four players here, he and Pace sound like the two most likely to go in first.

Hall of Fame look ahead: Warner

Pace -- Pace was one of the first big names of the golden era of offensive tackles in the NFL. Although I get the sense that voters don't see him as being quite as dominant as the likes of Jonathan Ogden or Walter Jones, there's still seemingly little doubt that he's going to go into the Hall of Fame. Some late-career injuries kept Pace from tacking on additional Pro Bowl appearances, but he's still remembered for his part in changing the idea of what a left tackle could be. It sounds like it might be a bit of a stretch for him to get in on the first try, but it seems like it will happen within his first two or three years on the ballot.

Hall of Fame look ahead: Pace

Bruce -- Like so many other receivers, there's clearly a question about when and how Bruce can break through with a projected logjam of candidates at the position. While that has cleared up a but in recent years with the additions of Andre Reed and Cris Carter, the list of viable wideout candidates is only going to grow. Names like Marvin Harrison and Tim Brown are still waiting and other statistical monsters like Randy Moss and Terrell Owens will be added soon. Bruce is likely going to have to wait a bit before he makes it, though the general thought seems to be that he will eventually get in.

Hall of Fame look ahead: Bruce

Holt -- Much of the opinion on Holt is similar to that of Bruce, especially when it comes to the logjam of wideouts who are angling for induction. However, Holt's consistency and dominance over a decade seem to resonate a bit more than some of the others. Even if his resume isn't as long as Bruce's or someone like Jerry Rice, a legitimate argument could be made that Holt was the best receiver in the league over the first decade of the 2000s. It sounds unlikely that Holt will go in right away and, like Bruce, will have to wait a bit but should get in at some point.

Hall of Fame look ahead: Holt
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Kurt Warner and Sam Bradford couldn't have taken paths any different to become the starting quarterback for the St. Louis Rams than the ones that ultimately landed them in the position.

But that doesn't mean Warner can't understand what Bradford goes through in his efforts to prove the job should belong to him well into the future.

Bradford
Bradford
"I came in as a free agent and it was its own pressure because I knew I’d get one shot and that was it and so there was pressure with that," Warner said. "There’s pressure playing the quarterback position. Being the No. 1 overall pick, when a team invests that much in you and says you’re that guy, I think it’s hard not to feel that pressure to live up to that billing."

Through most of Bradford's first four seasons, Warner has been supportive of his efforts to hold down the job that he once did. Because Warner is the only quarterback to lead the team to sustained success since its move in 1995, he remains the standard by which all quarterbacks are judged.

That's not to say Bradford has done enough to remove doubts about his status as a franchise quarterback so much as it's a reminder of the lofty status a quarterback in St. Louis must reach to be mentioned in the same breath as Warner.

In evaluating Bradford, Warner points to the need for an improved supporting cast that's existed almost since his arrival in St. Louis as the No. 1 overall pick in 2010.

"I’m the first one to say that I understand playing that position has so much to do with the people around you," Warner said. "But there’s also part of that position where you have to step up and separate yourself and be able to carry your team. Those are the expectations that are on Sam right now. They haven’t always had the pieces around him to allow him to make plays but being where he’s at, now they’ve got some young talent here, it becomes that next step for him to take that next leadership role and to take more upon himself."

Therein lies the additional ways Warner would like to see Bradford elevate his game. While he's remained a proponent of Bradford's, there's one key area he'd like to see improve. He shared that with "The Fast Lane," the afternoon drive radio show on 101 ESPN in St. Louis during a Monday interview.

"I think he wants to be great," Warner told the radio station. "I think he's a smart kid. ... there's a lot of good things that I see. I think the one thing for me when I watch film is I want to see him develop the confidence where he's willing to take some chances with the football. That he's willing to say, 'Guys, follow me.' I'm going to carry us a little bit. I'm going to take that shot down the field because I see it and I believe I can make it as opposed to second-guessing himself and throwing the check down."

Warner went on to say that he's OK with the occasional check down, but his general argument is one that has been a sticking point for many observers of Bradford since he entered the league. Some attribute his unwillingness to throw down the field to a lack of a trustworthy receiver, which also has some truth to it. But from the sound of Warner, it's more about being willing to take the risk that he can make a throw good enough to give the receiver no choice but to make the play.

In his first four seasons, Bradford's average of 6.29 yards per attempt and 5.50 yards per drop back ranks 31st in the NFL. To improve on that Bradford will have to bounce back from offseason ACL surgery, which is no easy task according to Warner.

"It’s not easy," Warner said. "It's not easy coming back from an injury, having only played half the season last year but those are the expectations that come with that position and being a franchise quarterback. I think those are the expectations now when you look at the division, you look at the NFC as a whole, you have to have that position to be successful and that position has to play well and play big at big moments. So he’s going to deal with that just because he’s a starting quarterback."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In some ways it was strange to see former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner throwing passes to receivers during training camp, especially Chris Givens, who now wears the No. 13 that Warner once made famous.

Warner
But as Warner threw about a dozen routes to Givens and fellow receiver Tavon Austin after Sunday's practice, the nearly 2,300 fans in attendance didn't care much that Warner wasn't in uniform. They just cared that he was home.

Part of Warner's new life, the life that began after he announced his retirement from the Arizona Cardinals in 2008, is working as a broadcaster for the NFL Network. That's what brought him back to St. Louis Sunday night. In fact, visits to Rams Park since his 2003 release have been few and far between.

“I can’t tell you when I was back here before, but it seems like I’ve been here a couple times," Warner said. “But it hasn’t been often. Obviously, my life moved to Phoenix, and with the kids and all that since retirement. Not that I don’t love this place and have strong feelings for it but sometimes we just move on and go other places."

Of course, considering the outpouring of love Warner received upon his return to St. Louis, it's clear that had the fans had their way Warner never would have departed in the first place. It's water under the bridge at this point, but there are still some who have a bitter taste in their mouth about the way Warner departed.

After leading the Rams to a pair of Super Bowls, including a win in Super Bowl XXXIV against current Rams coach Jeff Fisher's Titans, Warner battled injuries and struggled to get back to the supernova levels he achieved from 1999-01. The Rams parted ways with him in 2003, he had a short stay in New York with the Giants, and then he revitalized his career in Arizona.

In the time since, Warner has remained active in the St. Louis community from a charitable standpoint but has made his home in Arizona. His visits to St. Louis have mostly been limited to quarterbacking the Cardinals or popping up at the Dome as part of his broadcast duties. Rarely have they included a stop at Rams Park.

But Warner has already been invited back to take part in the team's celebration of the 15-year anniversary of winning that Super Bowl against Tennessee. It's a memory near and dear to Warner but one that also feels distant.

“It does feel like it was a long time ago," Warner said. “I don’t know if it’s 15 years (ago). I feel too good to feel like I’m that old. But at the same time there’s a lot of great memories. To think back to then and to think that for me it really all started that year. And how magical that year was."

If Warner is able to make it back for that celebration, there are many who would like to see his name go into the team's Ring of Fame. It's a point of contention among his many fans that he hasn't already been honored when fellow Greatest Show on Turf members Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk have seen their numbers retired.

It's an honor Warner would, of course, enjoy and one he'll receive from the Cardinals when they open the season against San Diego on Sept. 8.

“What player would say, no, they wouldn’t like to see their name on a ring of honor in any facility?" Warner said. “But my career will never be defined by those things. Those aren’t things that I ever really think about. What a tremendous honor to think that an organization felt that you left a big enough impact that you should be kind of engrossed in their history.

"But those are just bonuses to everything that’s happened in my career. And like I said, I think so fondly of my time here, and this organization, and the opportunities that they gave me."

Of course, just because the Rams have yet to make such a move with Warner doesn't mean it won't happen eventually. While it hasn't been a hard and fast rule -- Bruce is an example of an exception -- the organization has generally preferred to limit such things to players with Hall of Fame distinction.

Coincidentally, that's another honor that could come Warner's way soon enough and pave the way for him to land in the Rams' version of the Ring of Honor. Warner is eligible for induction for the first time this year and while he might not make it on the first ballot, a straw poll of some voters makes it seem as if he will get in.

For now, Warner seemed content to simply reconnect with the fans who supported his rise to prominence and clearly still have love for him.

"The fans here have always been so supportive of me over the years, even since I left," Warner said. “I couldn’t be more grateful for the impact that they’ve had on my life, my family, our foundation. So it’s always fun to come back and have a chance to interact with the fans."
Kevin DysonAP Photo/Michael Conroy
We have a winner. The voters picked Mike Jones' game-saving tackle as time expired in Super Bowl XXXIV as the Rams' most memorable play.

While I can certainly understand why The Tackle emerged victorious, I would cast my vote in a different direction. To me, the most memorable play in franchise history came moments before Jones brought Tennessee receiver Kevin Dyson down at the 1-yard line. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce's 73-yard touchdown catch to give the Rams the lead in that game is my choice for the top play in Rams history, narrowly edging Jones' tackle and Ricky Proehl's 30-yard touchdown in the NFC Championship Game.

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Really, you can't go wrong with any of the three plays that were nominated here. All of them were integral in the Rams' pursuit of a Super Bowl title. To differentiate is difficult, but I would argue for Bruce's catch because it's the one play of the three where I can argue that without it, the Rams wouldn't have won the world title.

Proehl's catch, as great as it was, came with the Rams in reasonable field goal range. If Proehl doesn't make the play, the Rams can line up for a 47-yard field goal and still take the lead. That's no chip shot or guarantee, but there was still a way for the Rams to win the game. And while Jones' tackle saved the victory for the Rams, many forget that if Dyson had slipped past him, the Titans would have had to kick an extra point to tie the game (or if coach Jeff Fisher wanted to get crazy, go for two and the win). Theoretically, the Rams still could have won the game in overtime, though momentum clearly was swinging in the Titans' direction.

But ultimately, Bruce's play stands above the rest to me because it most properly defines the greatest era in team history. The "Greatest Show on Turf" was known for its quick-strike ability to score from anywhere on the field at any moment.

After blowing a 16-point lead in the second half, the Rams were on the ropes. The personality of that team came directly from its no-fear approach to offense and coordinator Mike Martz's propensity for keeping the gas pedal pressed down for 60 minutes.

With the Rams reeling, it was fitting that Kurt Warner, the supernova quarterback who came from nowhere, connected with Bruce, the mainstay superstar who had been through all the bad times, to give the Rams a lead they would not relinquish and a championship they'd forever cherish.
Tim HightowerAP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. In the previous two days we featured Kurt Warner's 64-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald during a loss in Super Bowl XLIII and Karlos Dansby's fumble return for a touchdown in overtime of a wild-card game against Green Bay in the 2009 season. Please vote for your choice as the Cardinals' most memorable play.

Score: Cardinals 32, Eagles 25
Date: Jan. 18, 2009 Site: University of Phoenix Stadium

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Sometimes a memorable play doesn't include a touchdown, sack or interception. Sometimes it's one of those plays that lets fans breathe for a second, move away from the edge of their seat and know their team lived to see another down.

When Tim Hightower took a handoff from Kurt Warner on fourth-and-1 on the Philadelphia 49 with 7 minutes, 57 seconds left in the NFC Championship Game of the 2008 season, there wasn't a back flush against a seat.

Everyone knew if the Eagles regained possession they could milk the clock, making it incredibly tough for the Cardinals to reach their first Super Bowl in franchise history. Everyone knew there could be bigger plays, but at that moment this was the play that could define the season. When Hightower ran right and was pushed out of bounds after gaining 6 yards -- and one of the most important first downs in franchise history -- everyone exhaled. There were still 43 yards to go to overtake the Eagles, but at least there was hope.

That drive wasn't over. There was still a third down to be converted. But that fourth-down run by Hightower kept the hopes and dreams of an entire organization alive, and it eventually paid off when Arizona overtook the Eagles with a touchdown pass from Warner to Hightower with just under three minutes left. That pass was memorable as well, but it wouldn't have been possible without Hightower getting those 6 yards.

Isaac BruceAllen Kee/Getty Images
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This is the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in St. Louis Rams history. In the past two days, we have featured Ricky Proehl's 30-yard touchdown catch to beat Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game and linebacker Mike Jones' game-saving tackle as time expired in Super Bowl XXXIV. Please vote for your choice as the Rams' most memorable play.

Score: Rams 23, Titans 16
Date: Jan. 30, 2000 Site: Georgia Dome

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After jumping out to a 16-0 lead, the Rams seemed poised to coast to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. But those hopes were soon dashed as the resilient Titans surged from behind to tie the game at 16 with 2 minutes, 12 seconds to go. The Rams looked tired, and the high-octane offense that had taken the league by storm all season appeared to be running on fumes.

But, as that offense had done all season long, it found the one final burst at just the right moment. With the Rams taking over at their 27-yard line, offensive coordinator Mike Martz had no intention of playing for a field goal. The Rams came out with three receivers lined up to quarterback Kurt Warner's right and one to his left with running back Marshall Faulk in the backfield. The play call was "Twins Right Ace Right 999 H Balloon."

For the uninitiated, those 9's are shorthand for simple go routes, with the receivers attacking the Titans deep down the field. Each receiver to the right found himself in man coverage, with Isaac Bruce on the outside of the hashes, furthest away from safety help against cornerback Denard Walker. At the snap, the Titans rushed four and the Rams line kept the pocket safe, with the notable exception of end Jevon Kearse pushing past right tackle Fred Miller. Kearse closed in on Warner, who released the ball at the last second.

The ball floated down the right sideline. Walker clearly was unaware it had even been thrown, let alone that it was underthrown, but Bruce knew. He made the adjustment to come back for the ball as Walker tried unsuccessfully to catch up to the adjustment. By the time the ball arrived, Bruce had room to run, but other tacklers were gaining ground. Bruce cut inside and raced to the end zone while looking up at the scoreboard to see if anyone was closing in. Instead, he saw left tackle Orlando Pace celebrating and knew he was in the clear.

The 73-yard touchdown gave the Rams a 23-16 lead they would not relinquish on their way to winning the Super Bowl.

While the trio of plays that got the Rams to the Lombardi Trophy all have their special place in history, it's hard to argue against Bruce's touchdown as the most important. Proehl's catch had a higher degree of difficulty, but the Rams could have theoretically still won because they were in field goal range when he made it. And for as great as Jones' tackle was after Bruce's touchdown, if he hadn't made it, the Titans would have been able to only tie the game. Bruce's touchdown provided the definitive winning points in the biggest game in franchise history. As memorable plays go, that is about as good as it gets.
Ricky ProehlJoe Robbins/Getty Images
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This is the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in St. Louis Rams history. Wednesday, we'll feature Isaac Bruce's 73-yard touchdown catch that provided the winning points in Super Bowl XXXIV. On Monday we looked at linebacker Mike Jones' game-saving tackle of Kevin Dyson to preserve the Rams' victory in that Super Bowl. Please vote for your choice as the Rams' most memorable play.

Score: Rams 11, Buccaneers 6
Date: Jan. 23, 2000 Site: Edward Jones Dome

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Which is the most memorable play in Rams' history?

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In need of a big play to keep their dream season alive on a third-and-4 at Tampa Bay's 30 with 4 minutes, 50 seconds to go, the 1999 Rams generally had no shortage of options. Receivers Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim and running back Marshall Faulk had done it all season, so it would have been no surprise to see one of them step forward with the game on the line.

But Holt and Hakim were battling injuries, and the Rams offense was struggling to find traction against the Bucs' ferocious defense. Already in field goal range, most teams surely would've taken a first down and a chance to run the clock and kick for the lead, but that wasn't the way of the Rams and quarterback Kurt Warner.

Offensive coordinator Mike Martz called "585 H-Choice," but before the play, Warner told receiver Ricky Proehl to keep an eye on safety Damien Robinson in the middle of the field. Warner instructed Proehl to adjust his route to a fade if Robinson blitzed; otherwise, the first option would have been Faulk. Sure enough, Robinson came charging up the middle as Proehl found himself matched up with cornerback Brian Kelly on the left side. With the blitz picked up and the pocket clean, Warner lofted a pass to the left corner of the end zone.

As it fell toward the earth, a backpedaling Kelly reached in vain as Proehl leaped and pinned the ball to his left shoulder with his left arm as he came crashing down in the end zone. Proehl reached over with his right arm to secure the ball before landing to complete the 30-yard touchdown grab and give the Rams an 11-6 lead they would not relinquish on their way to Super Bowl XXXIV.

The touchdown was Proehl's only one of the entire season. To this day, many of Proehl's teammates -- Bruce included -- maintain that Proehl's catch was the most important and memorable of all the plays made by the Rams that season. It might have come from an unlikely source, but in many ways it summed up what that championship team was all about.
Kurt WarnerAl Pereira/Getty ImagesKurt Warner won two league MVPs and a Super Bowl title with the Rams.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- On Wednesday afternoon, the Arizona Cardinals announced that quarterback Kurt Warner's name will be added to the team's Ring of Honor at halftime of the team's Sept. 8 game against San Diego. Warner will be the 14th player to receive the honor for the Cardinals, a franchise that, of course, once made its home in St. Louis.

Though Warner retired as a Cardinal, the St. Louis Rams should follow suit and do something similar for the quarterback who made his name in the NFL as the trigger man for the most successful era in the organization's history.

Like the Cardinals, there is no better time for the Rams to make the move than this season.

This year is the 15th anniversary of the Warner-led Rams team that surged to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. By now, most of the world knows Warner's rags to riches story from former grocery bagger to league MVP. But it's not just Warner's story that makes him worthy of receiving a similar honor with the Rams, be it in their version of a Ring of Fame or even going the step further to retire his No. 13 jersey.

Warner gave St. Louis football fans a reason to love the game, a reason to believe that just about anything could happen on a football field. His story is absolutely integral in any re-telling of the team's history.

I've been told the Rams plan to celebrate the 15th anniversary of that 1999 team this year and hope to have Warner back in town to be feted as part of the group, but as of now there aren't any apparent plans for anything Warner-specific. The quarterback has made his way back to St. Louis the past two seasons for the team's "Thursday Night Football" appearances.

Asked Wednesday about where his loyalties lie between his time in Arizona and his time in St. Louis, Warner again emphasized that it's a battle that need not take place.

"People are always asking me 'well if you were going to go in the Hall of Fame would you be a Cardinal or would you be a Ram?'" Warner said. "My only answer is I wouldn’t be going in the Hall of Fame, if I get in, without both parts. Both parts to me are equally as important, equally special. And probably the thing I'm most proud of in my career was being able to help two organizations go someplace that they’d never been before. Not many people get that opportunity to do it with one.

"To have the chance to do it with two, that to me was fun. To me, I take great pride in that and being a part of that."

It's only natural for both fan bases to want to claim Warner as their own and, frankly, both can make good arguments for it. But as Warner points out, the part of his story that makes it complete is that he was able to elevate two franchises to the game's biggest stage.

More to the point, the question of whether Warner would go into the Hall of Fame as a Cardinal or Ram doesn't matter. The NFL isn't like Major League Baseball where a player can be inducted wearing the hat (or in this case helmet) of the team he chooses.

Warner's accomplishments in St. Louis are certainly every bit as deserving of being honored as what he did in Arizona. He led the Rams to a pair of Super Bowls, including a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. He won two league MVPs. He was the leader for one of the most dangerous and entertaining offenses in league history.

Like Arizona, the Rams have a Ring of Fame of their own. It includes 11 former greats such as Eric Dickerson and Deacon Jones. They even have a separate section for former St. Louis football Cardinals, a list that includes the quartet of Dan Dierdorf, Roger Wehrli, Jackie Smith and Larry Wilson. All are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is apparently a requirement to earn the honor.

But the Rams have made past exceptions to honor former greats, honoring some coaches and executives who haven't made it to Canton. Receiver Isaac Bruce had his No. 80 retired by the team and, like Warner, will be first-time eligible for induction this year. Perhaps the Rams are waiting for Warner to land in Canton before he joins the ranks, but why wait?

It can be hard to draw the line between players for honors such as these. Setting a hard and fast standard for having a jersey retired or landing in a ring of honor makes sense. I'm sure Warner will someday have his name amongst the other Rams legends. But Warner's legacy in St. Louis will always supersede any award that can be bestowed upon him elsewhere. And because of that, there is no reason to wait any longer.

Revisiting Rams' Mount Rushmore

February, 17, 2014
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In light of LeBron James' discussion of the NBA's version of Mount Rushmore last week, I took a shot at compiling a Rams version. I included players from all eras and found it a difficult exercise given the many great players and coaches through the franchise's history.

When all was said and done, I settled on a foursome of defensive end Deacon Jones, defensive tackle Merlin Olsen, running back Marshall Faulk and quarterback Kurt Warner. I gave a detailed explanation of each choice here but when boiling it down I looked at it from the perspective of telling the story of the franchise with four faces.

To me, that means having the defining eras of Rams football represented. The Fearsome Foursome and the Greatest Show on Turf are the most famous eras of the franchise. That isn't to take away from the guys who didn't play in those eras but I'm not sure the best story of the Rams can be told without those. Hence, both of those eras are equally represented on my Mount Rushmore.

But because this isn't something that comes with a definitive right answer, I wanted to open it up to my Twitter followers to see what they thought. In all, 38 people responded and the results were a little bit different than my quartet.

Here's the final tally from the kind respondents on Twitter:

Deacon Jones - 26
Isaac Bruce - 21
Jack Youngblood - 20
Marshall Faulk - 19
Kurt Warner - 17
Eric Dickerson - 16
Merlin Olsen - 12
Orlando Pace - 6
Elroy Hirsch - 4
Jackie Slater - 4
Norm Van Brocklin - 3
Dick Vermeil - 1
Torry Holt - 1
Henry Ellard - 1
Mike Jones - 1

Using those results of this relatively small sample size, the fans choice for a Mount Rushmore of Rams would be Jones, Bruce, Youngblood and Faulk.

I can't say I was surprised by the choice of Bruce and Youngblood, both of whom were right there with Dickerson as my toughest omissions. I was, however, a bit surprised to see Olsen trailing behind as much as he was. I suppose Jones gets the lion's share of the publicity for his work with the Fearsome Foursome but Olsen's accomplishments are matched by few players in the league, let alone in franchise history.

Really, you can't go wrong with any of the names above and all of those mentioned have rightfully earned a place in the memory of Rams and football fans everywhere.
Kurt WarnerAl Pereira/Getty ImagesKurt Warner is a two-time MVP and a Super Bowl champion. Is that enough to get him into the Hall of Fame on his first try?

ST. LOUIS -- On Saturday night, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced that former St. Louis Rams safety Aeneas Williams is part of this year's class of inductees. Williams isn't likely to be remembered as much for his time with the Rams as he was with the Arizona Cardinals, but for those wanting a player with a longer track record of playing for the Rams to get in, the time is coming soon.

The Greatest Show on Turf version of the Rams had no shortage of Hall of Fame candidates. Running back Marshall Faulk was the first to go in, but now the rest of the group is coming eligible. That should make for some tough decisions for the committee in the next couple of years but there are multiple Rams with a legitimate case to get in.

On Tuesday, we took a look at the case for left tackle Orlando Pace. Now it’s time for maybe the ultimate St. Louis fan favorite, quarterback Kurt Warner:

Amongst the many legends to play in the NFL over the years, there have been many great stories. Some of the game’s true greats overcame incredible hardships and obstacles to reach the pinnacle of the sport. But it’s not overstating it to assert that St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner’s rags to riches story is the greatest of them all.

Before the 1999 NFL season, the Rams signed quarterback Trent Green to a lucrative contract, hoping to install him as the starter of a revamped offense that featured running back Marshall Faulk, left tackle Orlando Pace and receiver Isaac Bruce.

When Green suffered a torn ACL in the preseason, then Rams coach Dick Vermeil uttered the now famous line ‘We will rally around Kurt Warner and we will play good football’ with his trademark tears streaming down his face.

The reaction of most was to ask ‘Who’s Kurt Warner?’ Rams fans and football fans alike found out pretty quickly who Warner was and soon his story became something of a legend.

By now, you’ve heard the story about the grocery shelf stocker turned NFL and Super Bowl MVP so we won’t recount it again here. By the time Warner’s six years in St. Louis were through, he’d thrown for 14,447 yards and 102 touchdowns for a passer rating of 97.2. Along the way, Warner won two MVPs and led the Rams to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV and a trip to Super Bowl XXXVI.

When Warner’s time in St. Louis ended in 2003, his magical run with the Rams almost certainly would have left him as one of the most hotly debated Hall of Fame candidates of all time. His numbers were spectacular but the sample size was small and overall, his body of work didn’t compare to many others.

Had Warner’s career ended there, his best chance to make the Hall of Fame would have rested more on the mythology of his story than the cold, hard numbers.

That was all before Warner’s desert revival in Arizona where he turned a maybe into a yes. That Warner added a final dominant chapter to his career with the moribund Cardinals should be more than enough to ensure him induction into the Hall of Fame.

Warner spent a lone season with the Giants in New York and just as all seemed lost, got another chance in Arizona. He promptly led the Cardinals; yes the Cardinals, to a Super Bowl appearance in 2008 behind one of his greatest seasons.

In five years in Arizona, Warner’s statistics match up pretty evenly to his five seasons as a starter in St. Louis. He threw for 15,843 yards and 100 touchdowns for a passer rating of 91.9 while starting 57 games, seven more than he did with the Rams.

All told, Warner ranks 33rd in league history with 32,344 passing yards, 31st in touchdown passes with 208 and eighth in passer rating at 93.7. He also led two teams to Super Bowl appearances, winning one with the Rams.

On the surface, many of Warner’s numbers may still fall short of some of the game’s greats. However, his second act in Arizona should more than enough to earn him enshrinement in Canton.

Whether Warner makes it next year when he’s eligible for the first time remains to be seen. But the guess here is that Warner’s immense production in a relatively short period combined with the romanticism of his story will be enough to get him in on the first try right next to the man who protected his blindside in St. Louis.
Marshawn Lynch might have a powerful politician on his side, but Larry Fitzgerald remains the NFC West's most polished diplomat. Not even the Arizona Cardinals' great quarterback collapse of 2012 can draw out from Fitzgerald the finger of blame.

Fitzgerald, featured in the video above with new Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, doesn't have to blame the Cardinals' previous quarterbacks for a drop in his personal stats. The chart below will do the work for him. It shows Fitzgerald's regular-season and playoff stats by quarterback over the past five seasons. While it's possible Fitzgerald's own play has slipped some since the Kurt Warner era, the numbers are consistent with general perceptions of the quarterbacks involved.

Kurt WarnerAl Pereira/Getty ImagesKurt Warner won two league MVPs and a Super Bowl title during the Rams' memorable run from 1999-2001.
Editor’s note: ESPN.com revisits the NFL’s most interesting teams since Y2K with a five-part “Most Compelling Teams of the Century” series. We begin with the Greatest Show on Turf -- the 2001 St. Louis Rams.

The Greatest Show on Turf won one Super Bowl, lost another and unraveled so furiously that its epitaph requires some reassembly.

Dramatic narratives have sought to explain why the St. Louis Rams fell so hard after a 1999-2001 run featuring three consecutive MVP awards, a 37-11 record and an average of 32.7 points per game.

Coach Mike Martz’s ego swallowed the team, some say. Front-office infighting poisoned the culture. Quarterback Kurt Warner’s deteriorating health precipitated a controversial and regrettable departure. Draft failures wrecked the roster. The team lost its soul when key role players departed in free agency.

Whatever the reasons, the Rams were never the same after Adam Vinatieri delivered an 48-yard field goal to put the underdog New England Patriots past St. Louis 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI, launching one NFL dynasty at the expense of another.

Throw in spying allegations against New England as a Super Bowl subplot -- more on that in a bit -- and those 2001 Rams easily qualify on ESPN.com’s short list for "Most Dynamic Teams of the Century." They're relevant for what they accomplished and for what happened next: a 7-9 record in 2002 and just one additional winning season for the Rams to this day.

About that epitaph ...

"It's one that escapes me as to how, one, we didn't stay together and, two, how things from that point forward did not continue to roll on," Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said recently.

If only the Rams could have known then what has become apparent now.

"Success is something that you have to know how you are going to deal with it before it hits you," Faulk said. "We ran into that in a sense of people wanted credit for putting the team together. Guys on the team who had roles, they wanted to move on and become the actual guy."

So, while some of the Patriots’ core players stuck around instead of chasing more prominent roles elsewhere -- Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi come to mind -- the Rams watched Grant Wistrom, Kevin Carter, London Fletcher and others cash in elsewhere. And who could blame them? Certainly not Faulk, who had escaped Indianapolis via trade and became an MVP in St. Louis. Teams look out for their own interests, and players often must do the same. But free agency has proven over time that money doesn’t always buy the right fit.

"That core group of guys that might not be the highest paid, might not be the most visible guys, their roles and them understanding the roles is kind of what keeps it together," Faulk said. "They might not be the guys who make it into the Hall of Fame, but they are for more or less a lot of the reasons why a lot of games are won, multiple championships are won."

Defensive back Aeneas Williams, himself a Hall of Fame finalist in recent years, was new to the Rams in 2001. The team expected Williams to do for the defense what Faulk had done for the offense. That wasn't far from what happened.

Williams famously picked off Brett Favre twice in the playoffs that postseason, returning both for touchdowns. He clinched the Rams' Super Bowl berth by picking off Donovan McNabb late in the NFC Championship Game.

With Williams and first-year coordinator Lovie Smith, that Rams defense ranked among the NFL's statistical leaders almost across the board, a reversal from 2000. They were third in yards, fifth in yards per play, third in rushing yards, sixth in net yards per pass attempt, second in first downs, sixth in third-down conversion rate and seventh in scoring.

"It was one of the best seasons I had, not just the winning but the amount of talent and the amount of humility that was on the team," Williams said. "That team was special."

The Rams knew it, too. They were 3-0 and coming off a 42-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins when Smith, recently hired away from Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay, delivered just the right message. Players were reveling in the victory and newfound elite status of the defense when Smith stood up to address the team. He listed off the team's accomplishments and exulted in how good it all felt. Players exulted along with him.

Smith then delivered a message that resonates with Williams to this day.

"There are some of you who are still making the same mistakes, and I'm telling you that we are looking to replace you," Smith told the team.

Silence.

There was nothing condescending or demeaning about Smith's delivery or his message. He did not name names. But the message was clear.

"To have that sobering thought from your leader in such a respectful and honoring way, which was intentional as it relates to accountability, I'll never forget it," Williams said. "The teams that have coaches who hold the players accountable no matter how good they are will be the ones that consistently win."

And yet the way that 2001 Rams season ended, and what happened next, might always publicly define that team more than the 14-2 record or revitalized defense.

"That team was loaded," Faulk said. "But this is why we play the greatest sport. There is no Game 5. No Game 7. There is one game, and you have to get it right or it doesn't matter how great you were the rest of the year."

Williams, now a pastor in St. Louis, pointed to the Rams' relatively narrow 24-17 victory over the Patriots during the regular season in suggesting the fat Super Bowl point spread was more about perception than reality. He downplayed the Spygate angle while acknowledging that some teammates are more passionate about whatever advantages the Patriots might have gleaned through taping opponents' hand signals or worse.

"Without knowing, we can only speculate," Williams said. "I relish the moment and the other thing, once we played 16 games and two or three playoff games, rarely are you fooled by what a team does. In that game, it boils down to turnovers."

Faulk carries a different perspective as someone familiar with every aspect of the Rams' offensive plan. He questions whether the Patriots could have anticipated previously unused wrinkles without spying. He has alluded in the past to red zone and third-down plays. The Rams scored on their lone red zone possession. Pressed for specifics, Faulk cited the way New England adjusted to tweaks in the way Faulk went into motion, including on Warner's quarterback sneak for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"It's extremely hard to tell you what it was, or what we did, but I will say this," Faulk explained. "The play that Kurt Warner scored on, Mike [Martz] drew that up in the dirt. The motion that I used on that play, I would love to show it to you and love to show you other plays how I went in motion and what I did so you could see it. It's just talk when you talk, but here is what we normally do and this is what we put into this game."

Related comments from Faulk made waves during Super Bowl week. Then as now, Faulk wearies of charges he's pushing conspiracy theories.

"I didn’t make the news, I didn’t make up the news about what happened, but it is what it is," he said. "You accept the loss. They beat us. It happens. You are going to lose games. Is Bill Belichick a great mind? Yes.

"But when a guy like Aeneas Williams sits at home and has to wonder whether he lost the Super Bowl or was cheated out of it, that is who I feel bad for."

Faulk, Warner, Fletcher, Wistrom, Carter, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Leonard Little and others from that 2001 team can reflect knowing they won it all two years earlier. For some, that Super Bowl against New England would be as close as they came to football immortality. At least they can know the 2001 team will not be forgotten anytime soon.

Count ESPN's Matthew Berry among those expecting a 2013 statistical rebound for Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.



Berry makes his case in the video above. Not everyone on the ESPN fantasy panel is sold, but Berry's reasoning is sound.

Just about everything fell apart for the Cardinals' offense last season. Before then, Fitzgerald had remained highly productive even when the team's quarterback play suffered, including when he finished the 2010 season with 90 receptions for 1,137 yards.

However, Fitzgerald's total for receiving touchdowns fell off pretty quickly once Kurt Warner retired following the 2009 season. Fitzgerald had 25 touchdowns over the 2008 and 2009 seasons. He has 18 touchdowns over the subsequent three seasons, including a career-low four last season.

We should expect Fitzgerald's total for touchdowns to grow almost by default. Improved quarterback play and better overall health on offense should also contribute to a statistical rebound for Fitzgerald.

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