Why is it that when we have a rags-to-riches story, those feel-good deals that make even the hardened smile, there's always a pocket of people who can't wait to see the person fall back down to the rags level?
That's the exact type of talk that was heard late last year when Rams quarterback Kurt Warner struggled through an injury-plagued year. A former grocery stock boy who became a two-time MVP in a route that took him through Europe and also indoors to play the game he loved, Warner found himself at the center of a quarterback controversy that had a little bit of everything.
Orlando Pace leads an offensive line that will be key to Kurt Warner's success.(Getty Images)
It had fans saying his career was done, his hands so badly damaged he barely could get change out of his pocket, let alone throw a football. It had many around the league insisting Marc Bulger, who came off the bench and played well when Warner was hurt, was the Rams’ future at the position.
Ripping Warner was easy, which is why it seemed so loud. What is hard to understand is why. What's not to like about the guy?
He's a prototype quarterback, a guy who will stand in against pressure and make last-second throws. Maybe he can't dance away like a Michael Vick, but he has Dan Marino-like feel in the pocket. He also happens to be one of the nicest players in the NFL, always accommodating, always willing to talk.
This is one guy who hasn't forgotten the road he traveled to get to his lofty star status. You get the feeling he really isn't much different than he would be if he were still stocking cans of vegetables.
That's what makes the sting of last season so hard to understand for Warner, and why it begs this question:
What did he do to deserve it?
"People sometimes seem to want to see you fall down to another level," Warner said. "There were people who wanted to throw me out of town. The past year has taught me a lot about perspective. People are going to say what they want, but I can't let it bother me. I'm not sure why there was so much criticism."
Warner certainly wasn't the same quarterback who won the MVP in 1999 and 2001. The injuries took their toll, as did the amazing number of hits he took the past couple of seasons. Some scouts contend he became a little gun-shy in the pocket, not throwing on time. It would be hard to blame him, considering the shots he took playing behind a line that included a right tackle who was more a spinning top than a pass protector.
In the fourth game of the season, Warner broke the pinky finger on his right (throwing) hand. That forced him to miss six games. When he returned against Washington on Nov. 24, Bulger had won six games and was the rage of the league. They were calling him the next Kurt Warner, a guy who came off the street to become a legit NFL quarterback. Many insisted Bulger keep the job.
Rams coach Mike Martz thought otherwise, and Warner started against Washington and Philadelphia on the road. He broke his hand in the Washington game, yet started the next week against the Eagles. In the Redskins game, Warner didn't read a blitz on a late drive deep in the Washington end, was hit and fumbled. The old Warner, critics said, would never have done that.
A week later against the Eagles, he was awful. It didn't help that the Philadelphia blitz spent the day in his backfield. But Warner was clearly not the same player. He failed to find open receivers deep, something he did with ease from 1999-2001, when he had the best three-season span of any passer in NFL history.
That hand injury led to the controversy involving Warner's wife, Brenda. She called a local radio program and said it was she who forced Warner to get X-rays to find out if his hand was broken. Martz fumed, insisting it was the team that forced Warner to have the X-ray that ended his season.
Martz and Warner have been close. They grew up in the NFL together, Warner's success helping Martz ascend to the head-coaching job when Dick Vermeil retired. Without Warner, Martz would likely still be an offensive coordinator somewhere. Without Martz's wide-open system, Warner might be a backup somewhere.
The late-season incident strained the relationship, although both men have said the damage has been repaired. Martz didn't help when he said Bulger would likely battle Warner for the starting job this season. He later smartly amended that by insisting Warner was his starter.
"It was nice to hear Mike say that, but I know if I play at the level I did for three years, which is as good as any quarterback in the league has played, then the rest will take care of itself," Warner said. "If I don't, then there will be a competition. I love the endorsement of my coach, but if I don't play up to my level, then it won't matter anyway."
Rams fans, Warner says, need not worry. He insists he will be as good as that guy who amazed with his ability to snap off throws into the tightest areas in an instant, hitting his receivers on the run and enabling them to turn short passes into big gains.
For one, he's healthy. The hand is no longer a bother, and yes, he can get change out of his pocket, which he always could.
"I feel great," Warner said.
After trimming down some last season, playing at 206, he has gained back some of the weight and is at 216. He feels the extra weight will help him hold up better against the pressure, essentially giving him a cushion in his midsection.
"I didn't feel as comfortable at the lighter weight," Warner said. "I felt the wear and tear on my body. I'm gaining more fat now, and I feel stronger. I think it will help me."
Before getting visions of Billy Kilmer in your head, he plans to gain about five to 10 pounds. That will soften the blows, but so will having a proven right tackle like Kyle Turley, who the Rams acquired from the Saints. In Turley and left tackle Orlando Pace, Warner should have the best protection of his career.
That could make the 2003 Rams look much like the two Super Bowl teams, which means plenty of points and an MVP-like Warner.
He did struggle on the first day of the team's recent minicamp after taking four months off from throwing, but he finished strong. Surprisingly, he said he was mentally off.
"The lack of work seemed to show up," he said. "I hadn't been in the mix of things in quite a while. I wasn't seeing things like I normally do. I was trying to reel in the speed of the game. I made some mental mistakes that I normally don't make.
“You expect physical mistakes to come at the first minicamp, but not mental mistakes. That was frustrating. But as the camp moved along, I got better and there is no doubt that I will be back to the level I was in 1999, 2000 and 2001. There are no questions, none at all."
Well, maybe one. That being: Why does it seem so many people want to see him fail?
He is gracious, low-keyed and humble. He doesn't get into trouble off the field, and you won't ever see him pulled over for drunk driving. But he has become a poster boy for ripping someone when they have fallen. How in the heck did that happen? And what's he need to do to make it stop?
"I can't worry about all that," Warner said. "Some people wanted to run me out of town. There were a lot of things said. But all I can do is just prove them wrong."
Here's one bet that says he does just that in 2003.