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ESPN The Magazine: Air Superiority
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Sometimes it seems as if he’s not one of us. After all, others have the same job title he has -- quarterback -- but no one plays the position the same way. He started for only one year in college and was named the Gateway Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He’s supposed to have spent three years with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena League, but how can we be sure? Do you know anyone who actually saw one of the those games?

Kurt Warner is the nearest thing we’ve seen in professional sports to Shoeless Joe Hardy of Damn Yankees! Hardy was fictional; Warner’s story only seems that way. His arrival as the Rams starting QB in 1999 was followed by spectacular individual and team successes. The closest model might be Fernando Valenzuela’s 1981 season, when the rookie lefty won his first eight starts (including five shutouts) and wound up winning both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards and leading the Dodgers to a World Series championship. But in retrospect, Warner’s rise seems even more magical, given the relative impact on their teams of an every-down quarterback and a pitcher who starts every four or five days.

How different is Warner from the average quarterbacking Joe? Consider the way most pro QBs are encouraged to play the game: safety first. Don’t make a mistake. Don’t take a sack or throw an interception. Protect the ball. Complete short passes. Dennis Miller calls it the Fredo Corleone approach to the job. You can see the effect in the statistics. During the 2001 season, the NFL’s overall completion percentage (59.0) was an all-time high, while its average yards per completion (11.5) was an all-time low. In this environment, we have Warner throwing the ball all over the field, looking as out of place as a leather-encased Eva Savelot would on the 1960s set of The Donna Reed Show. Warner doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and the rules that apply to others have little bearing on him.

Exhibit one: Dan Fouts passed for 300 yards in 51 of the 181 games in which he played during his Hall of Fame career. That’s 28%, the highest rate by anyone who has played in at least 25 NFL games -- except Warner. Kurt has passed for 300 yards in 26 of his 44 games, an astounding 59%, more than double the rate of the second-place Fouts.

Exhibit Two: Not only does Warner pass for 300 yards in a game with otherworldly ease, but he wins the great majority of such games. During the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the NFL’s 300-yard passers came up winners 631 times and losers 629 times -- a winning percentage of .5008. Warner has won 22 of the 26 games in which he has thrown for 300 yards, a winning percentage of .846, the best in league history. The next three names on the list belong to quarterback royalty: Steve Young, 21-7 (.750); Joe Montana, 29-10 (.744); and John Unitas, 19-7 (.731).

Exhibit Three: Yards per pass -- probably the most important statistical category separating winning quarterbacks from losing ones. Otto Graham is the NFL’s career record-holder with an average of 8.63 yards per pass. He is followed by Sid Luckman (8.42) and Norm Van Brocklin (8.16). Just so the point is made: We’re talking about a statistical category in which none of the three all-time leaders has taken a snap in the past 40 years; in which only one player (Young) in the all-time top 10 played anytime in the past 10 years; and in which not a single active player resides in the all-time top 20. Remember, we’re in an era of shorter, safer passes.

Well, Warner doesn’t yet qualify. A player needs to have thrown 1,500 passes to qualify for any career passing percentage lists, and Warner finished this season 97 passes shy. (Postseason statistics, of course, are kept separate from the regular-season kind.) But Warner’s career average of 9.02 yards per pass is already so high that he could average just three yards per pass over his next 97 throws and he would still jump to the top of the all-time list as soon as he qualified.

Warner’s pass rating over the past three seasons is 103.4. He’s only the third player to achieve a three-year rating in triple figures. (Montana had a 100.7 rating from 1987 to 1989; Young’s best was 107.1, from 1992 to 1994.) And early next season, once he throws those 97 passes, Warner will supplant Young as the NFL’s all-time leading passer (a designation based solely on pass rating).

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. A little thing called trying to win the Super Bowl lies ahead. Eight starting quarterbacks have won multiple Super Bowls, but Warner could be the first to do so within three years of his first NFL start.

Yes, he’s different.

This article appears in the February 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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