Saturday, January 31, 2009 Updated: February 1, 12:58 PM ET
Warner, Big Ben can define legacies
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
TAMPA, Fla. -- Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner won't deviate from his usual routine Sunday morning. He'll eat a hearty breakfast shortly after waking up, catch a brief nap a couple of hours later, then start focusing on everything that's coming that evening. His entire strategy is based on one clear goal: Keep things as simple as possible. The more he can do that, the less time he'll spend overanalyzing what he has to do against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII.
If there's one thing Warner has learned from his two previous Super Bowl appearances -- and it's the same wisdom that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has gained from his win in Super Bowl XL -- it's that you'd better manage your emotions effectively as this game nears.
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"It's the kind of deal where you ask yourself how soon that nervousness and anxiety is going to hit you," said Warner, who led the St. Louis Rams to Super Bowls in the 1999 and 2001 seasons. "You hope you can prolong it as much as possible, but you also know that Saturday and Sunday are going to be long days, that you're going to be thinking about the game. You're going to be restless."
That anxiety Warner speaks about won't just be the result of his team having a chance to win a championship. It also will be based on something less obvious: his understanding that opportunities like these don't come around very often. As much as this year's Super Bowl is about crowning the next champion of the NFL, it's also about legacies. You've got one team chasing a record sixth Super Bowl title (the Steelers), another trying to officially shed its image as a bottom-dwelling franchise (the Cardinals) and two quarterbacks who might be one step closer to being remembered as among the best to ever play the position.
There's little question Roethlisberger would be moving into select company with another Super Bowl win; that would be his second title in just five seasons in the league. When you factor in the possibility of him having eight playoff wins in 10 appearances, he probably would be well on his way to the Hall of Fame. The same is true for the 37-year-old Warner, who's playing in his third Super Bowl in 10 seasons. It would be hard to argue against his Hall of Fame credentials, especially when considering he'd have two championships and two league MVP awards despite not starting his first game until he was 28 years old.
In fact, Warner already has made his opponents believe in his place in history. "Kurt Warner is a Hall of Fame quarterback," Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior said. "If you put him in a good system and have good players around him, then he is going to make everything go. We've seen that throughout the years with him. I don't know why people doubt whether he should be in the Hall of Fame, because he definitely should be. The guy can go out there and make plays when he has the people around him to help him out."
"I really don't think a lot about the Hall of Fame," Warner said. "Obviously, when people talk about it or mention it to me, you can't help but think about it to some degree. What I would say is that it is what it is. I don't make those decisions and I don't know what all goes into making those decisions. But I am excited to be where I am today."
In many ways, Warner is the perfect example of what these Arizona Cardinals are all about: They've been ignored, underestimated, beaten down and still they keep believing in their ability to succeed. It was only seven years ago when Warner was on top of the NFL, a man who had just won his second MVP award in 2001 and was about to lead the Rams into their second Super Bowl in three years. If the Rams had won that game, people might have talked about them as a dynasty in the same way they talked about the New England Patriots earlier this decade. Instead, the Patriots pulled off the upset in that contest, and New England's Tom Brady was on his way to becoming the most inspirational quarterback in the world.
Warner still struggles with the memory of that loss. He wishes he could block it out and embrace the victory that came in the 1999 season, but he can't. Whenever you lose a game of that magnitude, it breaks your heart in ways that are completely unimaginable. And as Warner soon discovered, there was no way of knowing if he'd ever have another chance.
In the case of Roethlisberger, that wasn't as much of a concern. His goal has been to make it back to the Super Bowl and play a much bigger role in the outcome of that game. As much as he enjoyed winning a title in his second season in the NFL, he also was noticeably despondent after a 21-10 victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XL. He felt as if his numbers could have cost his teammates a championship -- he completed 9 of 21 passes for 123 yards with two interceptions -- and that doesn't sit well with Roethlisberger to this day.
But Roethlisberger already can see a change in his approach to this game when compared to his mindset three seasons ago.
"I'm more relaxed," Roethlisberger said. "I'm having more fun. The first time was my second year in the league, and I was so overwhelmed because it was such a dream to be in the game. This time, I'm just enjoying it. I'm sure once the ball is kicked off there will be nerves going through me, but if you're not nervous for this game then there's something wrong with you."
Roethlisberger also understands how much his role within this team has changed since the last Super Bowl appearance. Instead of being "along for the ride," which is how he characterized his contributions to the Steelers' 2005 run, he's the one leading the charge. He was named a captain this season, and he also has been more willing to open up to his teammates, whether it's by taking offseason trips with them or setting up informal social gatherings at his house. Those efforts have been especially valuable in Roethlisberger's relationship with his offensive line, despite the fact that the unit is partly responsible for him being sacked more than any other quarterback in the league since 2004.
Said Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon: "I think with any great player, he knew if he wanted to get to this point he was going to have to bring us along and we were going to have to be a better unit as a whole. Some of that you can't just get on the field. Some of that you have to do off the field, playing cards or having a couple drinks and getting to know who he is. He stepped out of his shell, started trusting us and started to love us like we love him. It's a beautiful relationship now."
Warner never has struggled with opening up to his teammates. He does that about as well as any quarterback in the league, and he's won respect because of how he has overcome so many struggles in his career. We've all heard the well-documented stories of his days stocking shelves in an Iowa grocery store when no NFL team wanted to give him a shot. But Warner also has had to persevere through all the ups and downs of life within the league.
Injuries and inconsistency cost him his job in St. Louis. The New York Giants brought him in for a season to help mentor rookie Eli Manning, then benched him shortly after the midpoint of that season. The Cardinals did offer him a shot at competing for a job when he joined the team in 2005, but that opportunity vanished quickly after the organization selected Matt Leinart with the 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Warner was so distraught after Leinart replaced him five games into the 2006 season that he nearly retired.
The Cardinals are now grateful that Warner reconsidered. After splitting time with Leinart early in 2007 -- Leinart eventually was lost for the season after breaking his collarbone in the fifth game -- Warner played well enough in this year's training camp to win the job. It might have been difficult for coach Ken Whisenhunt to think about benching his quarterback of the future for yet another season, but the fact was that Warner was the team's best player at the position. "It really came down to making the decision on who I thought gave us the best chance to start fast," Whisenhunt said.
Warner didn't disappoint. He produced the best numbers of his career since his days in St. Louis -- he completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 4,290 yards with 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions -- and earned his fourth Pro Bowl nomination. More important, he gave the Cardinals a sense of stability at a position that had always been unstable.
"We believed in Kurt," Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said. "When he came to us in 2005, we knew he still had arm strength. We knew he could still play. We felt like if we could protect him and give him a little bit of time to get rid of the ball a little earlier, we had one hell of a chance to see Kurt be back at the top form of his career. And that's exactly what he's done."
Now the Cardinals must see if Warner can lead them past one more obstacle. As for Roethlisberger, the key for him is avoiding the urge to do too much. Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians already has advised Roethlisberger to avoid pressing because of the chance at making history.
"For me, this game is about getting that sixth [Super Bowl victory] for the Rooney family and giving the family one more championship than any other team," Roethlisberger said. "That would mean so much to our fans, because they already think we are the best thing in the world. If we could give them some more evidence of that, that would be awesome."
Of course, Warner also wants to give the Cardinals and their fans the same thing. "With this game, and in 1999, when we were in a similar situation with the Rams, those are probably the two things I'm going to take with me more than anything when I leave this game," Warner said. "It's not going to be about touchdown passes or games won. It's going to be being a part of two organizations that nobody expected anything from. And being able to take those teams on a run to the Super Bowl."
So one way or another, we're going to see some history Sunday night. Either we'll be watching one of the most surprising Super Bowl runs in NFL history, or we'll witness the coronation of arguably the league's greatest franchise. Somewhere along the way, we'll also discover just how much Roethlisberger and Warner belong among the league's elite, as well. Something tells us that they will both make a pretty strong case for themselves.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.