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Cards' Warner makes unlikely return to Super Bowl

TAMPA, Fla. - It was shortly after the 2004 season, and Kurt Warner wasn't sure what would happen now that he'd been released by the Giants after one season. Actually, after only nine starts, or as long as it took Tom Coughlin to bench him and start rookie Eli Manning.

"I was thinking, 'Gosh, I hope I get another opportunity,"' Warner said yesterday, five days from his third Super Bowl. "I just wanted a chance to compete and get back on the football field."

Warner got that chance, but even then, he wasn't sure where his career would lead. At 34, he went 2-8 in 2005, his first season with the Cardinals. The next year, it was another first-round pick, rookie Matt Leinart, threatening his security. Leinart eventually became the starter, and even went into this season as Ken Whisenhunt's No. 1 choice.

But Leinart's uneven work ethic, combined with Warner's consistency during the offseason and the preseason, forced the coach to change his mind. Good call, don't you think?

"I definitely didn't envision going to the Super Bowl when I left New York," Warner said. "But with the progress we made coming into this year, that was definitely the goal and the mind-set."

Maybe in Warner's mind. The Cardinals were considered marginally improved entering the season. But Super Bowl? Heck, they lost four of their last six games to limp into the playoffs.

But Warner got hot at the right time, and here he is. Playing some of the best football of an unlikely career that didn't begin in earnest until age 28, he won the Super Bowl in his first season as the Rams' starter, 1999, and returned to it two years later, losing to the Patriots.

Now at an age when most quarterbacks think about retirement, he is back again.

"It's always great to be in the Super Bowl," he said. "The thing I enjoy is the process. It's been unique, special, unexpected. It's been beyond belief to some degree, and that's been the best part of it. You get to step back and realize how special it is. It's very sweet to be here and enjoying it."

Whisenhunt is enjoying it, too. Especially after realizing he made the right call in going with Warner over the inexperienced, mistake-prone Leinart.

"It is always good to have players that have been there and been successful at this level," Whisenhunt said. "When you have a player that has played as well as Kurt has this year, he obviously carries a lot of weight from a leadership standpoint. When he stands in front of the team and says, 'This is what to expect. These are things that you have to deal with,' a lot of younger players will listen to that.

"Sometimes as a coach you can say that to the players, but it really means a lot when it comes from an established player who is having a very successful season."

Warner is at the top of his game. With eight touchdowns and two interceptions in the playoffs, he has gotten progressively better against the Falcons, Panthers and Eagles. Winning Sunday will easily be the toughest task of all; the Steelers have the league's top defense. The only way it will happen is if the Cardinals stick to the same approach that got them this far.

"We're a lot better at keeping teams off balance than maybe we were earlier in the year," he said. "The more balance you have on offense, the better you can be against good defenses because you keep them off balance as opposed to them just knowing exactly what you're going to do. You just feel with the playmakers we have and the way we're playing across the board, and the way the offensive line is playing, that we can continue to improve."

One more transcendent performance, and Warner gets another ring. And maybe a shot at getting into the Hall of Fame.

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