Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan said he used to watch Kurt Warner while growing up, wowed by Warner's prolific passing in directing the Rams offense, dubbed "The Greatest Show on Turf."
"He was unbelievable," Ryan said. "And is still playing unbelievable."
First-round picks touted as "franchise quarterbacks" have come and gone. Legends have left the game for the broadcast booth. But, seven years removed from his last Super Bowl appearance with the Rams, here is Warner, 37, the Cardinals' Pro Bowl quarterback, continuing yet another career resurrection.
And after outplaying Ryan — the NFL's offensive rookie of the year — in Saturday's wild-card win, Warner's Cardinals are two victories from the Super Bowl.
"It makes me feel about five years younger," Warner said after a recent practice. Then, he paused, "maybe two years younger."
His made-for-TV-movie story is one of perseverance. After failing in his first NFL tryout in 1994, Warner went from grocery store clerk in small-town Iowa to a two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion with the Rams.
Since then, he has been discarded. And doubted. Warner has lost a starting job four times with three teams. He was benched twice in Arizona. But in unseating former first-round pick Matt Leinart, Warner has rewritten the Cardinal record books in taking the franchise to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Warner prefers to be defined by his religious faith, hoping to be remembered for good deeds — anonymously buying dinner for families at restaurants and building playgrounds at schools — rather than touchdowns.
But he acknowledges that the same faith played a role in his on-field success.
"Has he laid some eggs? Has he had some bad days? Yeah, he's had all those things," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth told the Arizona Republic. "But Kurt Warner has still been as efficient as he's ever been and he's been pretty darn impressive to me.
"This is Kurt Warner's team. Good, bad or indifferent, this has been the guy that's really driven it and he deserves a lot of the credit for it."
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According to Brett Favre, Warner didn't always believe in himself. The two were Packers teammates briefly in the summer of 1994 when Warner, a long shot from Northern Iowa, refused quarterback coach Steve Mariucci's request to go in on a certain play.
"He said, 'No, I'm not going in,' " Favre told reporters before the Jets and Cardinals played this year. "He wasn't ready."
Favre smiled, "He's not afraid to go in now."
Warner had two strong seasons in Arena football before getting an NFL shot with St. Louis in 1998. After taking over for injured Trent Green, he spearheaded an attack that set a league record with three consecutive 500-point seasons.
Through his struggles since, Warner maintained he still had confidence, even when he was replaced by Marc Bulger in St. Louis, Eli Manning in New York and Josh McCown and Leinart in Arizona.
Apparently, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt did, too. He named Leinart the starter in the offseason, but Warner was given the job from Week 1, a perfect fit for a young, pass-happy team with three budding, 1,000-yard receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston).
Warner said he feels he might be playing some of his best football, and his numbers (30 TDs, 4,583 yards, 96.9 passer rating) bear it out, matching up well with his MVP-caliber seasons in St. Louis.
But his leadership, his "calming influence," Whisenhunt said, might be just as big an impact as his arm. "It helps everybody that Kurt knows so much," Breaston said. "He's been through it all. He's been to a Super Bowl. He's been MVP. He just has that leadership."
Warner said he hasn't decided whether he'll retire after this season (he'll be an unrestricted free agent). He could go out a winner, settle down with his wife, Brenda, and seven children, and do more charity work with the Kurt Warner Foundation.
If Warner returns, few would dare doubt him. Not again.
"Many have said that if my life story was a script in Hollywood, it would never be believed," Warner wrote on his Web site, kurtwarner.org. "But I am where I am because I believed and I never gave up."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] The Associated Press contributed to this report.