The Bucs' pass rush didn't sack Kurt Warner last January, but it did contribute to a season-worst three interceptions
After perhaps the most startling debut in NFL history, Kurt Warner has met all the expectations in his follow-up season (and other notes)
We'd rather not re-hash the entire Kurt Warner saga, assuming you've been filled in on his amazing 1999 rise from obscure backup to National Football League MVP.
So why does Warner have to come out and act like it's 1999 all over again?
Any onlookers expecting Warner to fade back into obscurity after his outlandish breakthrough last year were set straight about five minutes into the 2000 season. Like the Rams' uniforms, the team's investment in Warner has turned to gold.
After throwing 41 touchdown passes in his first year as a starter, the most ever by a player not named Dan Marino, Warner opened the current campaign with 17 scoring tosses in his first six games.
That pace would have led to 45 touchdown passes by the end of the year, but his runaway season was interrupted by a broken finger in game seven, and he is only now rounding back into form. After missing five games, Warner came back with perhaps his worst NFL outing two weeks ago against Carolina, throwing four interceptions in a 16-3 loss. That hangover was brief, however, as he picked apart Minnesota last Sunday with 27 completions in 32 attempts for 346 yards and no interceptions (all of the Rams' touchdowns in a 40-29 win came on the ground).
So why was Warner rusty one week and suddenly his old self seven days later?
"It's hard to say," said Warner on Wednesday. "I really felt comfortable, felt good going into the Carolina game. Probably the biggest difference was getting the strength in my hand back to the point where I just felt like I had completely control of the football. A couple of balls got away from me, I didn't put them where I wanted to put them in the Carolina game. I can't necessarily say it was because of the finger, but it just didn't feel as comfortable as I did last week.
"I just got focused again last week, did a lot of praying getting ready for the game, and really felt going in that I was on top of my game. I felt really good in practice, felt really focused. But I don't really know what the huge difference was. Probably just feeling a little more comfortable with the ball after a week of playing."
Against the Vikings, Warner captained the type of Rams offense that sailed straight to the Super Bowl title last year, hitting players in stride with precision passes to allow them room to tack on extra yards. It is perhaps this asset that has allowed Warner, whose previous professional activity before 1999 was with the Arena Football League's Iowa Barnstormers, to rise to the top of his profession in the NFL.
"I think a lot of it just has to do with the number of games that I've played over the course of the last few years at a lot of different levels," said Warner of his precision passing. "I think the speed and quickness of the Arena game, being able to adjust and react when, almost every time you threw it, there was a guy in your face, and being able to hit somebody in stride because the windows were small. And then I think a lot of it is just God-given ability, to be able to use the talents that I've got."
So are we giving too much credit to the opposing quarterback this week? Don't worry – the feeling is mutual. Warner has a healthy respect for the Buccaneer defense, which doesn't believe it has to line up as another of the quarterback's weekly victims.
"I think the biggest thing, first and foremost, is that they've got great athletes," said Warner of the seventh-ranked Tampa Bay defense. "They've got great athletes in all the different positions. They're fast, they're quick and they play their schemes so well. There are other teams out there that try to copy what they do, but they don't have the personnel and they understand what they're trying to do like the Bucs do.
"Then you go beyond that and you've got four guys up front that can dictate the tempo of a game by themselves. You don't have to blitz a lot of guys. You don't have to bring your linebackers or your safety to get pressure on the quarterback. You can do it with your front four, which allows everybody else to stay back in pass coverage.
"And then those guys that are in the pass coverage, they've got so much speed that, even if you find a hole and complete a ball, they've got three or four guys right around the ball to not allow you to get a big play. With all those things tied in, it makes the offensive team have to be very patient. It has to be able to consistently make 10, 12 plays in a drive without making a mistake, whether it's a missed block and getting a sack or missing an open receiver or throwing an interception. You have to be able to be consistent in what you do against them, otherwise they'll take advantage of it because they're so good and they're so talented."
Remember, until Carolina shut him down, no NFL defense had figured out how to stop Warner and the Rams' high-powered attack better than the Buccaneers. Significant underdogs in the NFC Championship Game at St. Louis last year, the Bucs held a 6-5 lead late in the first quarter, before Warner thwarted a Tampa Bay blitz by throwing over the top to WR Ricky Proehl for a 30-yard touchdown.
That was the only TD of the game, and it balanced three interceptions, the first time Warner had been picked off that many times all year. Buccaneer defenders may have gained confidence for 2000 by their ability to shut down the Rams, but not too many Tampa Bay players have truly fond memories of that afternoon. Warner has reason to look back warmly on that cold day in St. Louis.
"It was just another game where it was just kind of back and forth with teams making big plays," he said. "We happened to make the last one to put us over the top, but it was really a game that could have gone either way. It was just fun to be a part of it.
"It just doesn't get any better than that. It was a great football game, possibly the best offense in the league playing against the best defense in the league. A hard-fought game. Both teams wanted to get to the Super Bowl. And then, making that final play. It doesn't get much better than that, to be able to step up and make a play in a championship game to put your team into the Super Bowl. It was just a string of emotions, because it was frustrating playing against such a good defense. We did some good things, and then we turned the ball over. They'd make a great play and stop us. It was just kind of back-and-forth, one of those great games that you love to be a part of. You especially love to be a part of it if you can come out a winner."
No doubt that's true. Buccaneer players and fans would like to experience it first-hand this coming Monday, but Warner surely has other plans.
Even though the team did not practice on Wednesday, electing to give its players a second consecutive day off, the training staff continued to treat the team's injured players. Most notably, FB Mike Alstott, S John Lynch and tackle Pete Pierson all stopped by for some sort of treatment.
Lynch, of course, is no longer much of a question mark, having played the last three games with a recently-dislocated shoulder that could pop out at any time. Alstott and Pierson, on the other hand, are two very large question marks for Monday's game.
Or perhaps we should say 'probable' marks. After tending to Alstott and Pierson one last time, Head Trainer Todd Toriscelli released the team's injury report for Wednesday and both players were listed as 'probable' instead of the more conservative 'questionable'.
That is somewhat surprising news on both fronts. Alstott sprained the MCL in his left knee on the same afternoon Lynch dislocated his shoulder, at Chicago on November 19, and there was a widespread belief that the bruising fullback was lost for the rest of the regular season. Instead, it know appears as if Alstott will play against St. Louis, completing his comeback in just four weeks, the lowest end of the predicted spectrum of recovery.
Pierson, meanwhile, went home Sunday night after the game in Miami with severe doubts about his availability this week. However, his left calf pull showed significant improvement by Monday morning and he has continued to progress over the last two days. Toriscelli and his staff would have considered him either 'doubtful' or 'out' on Sunday night, had changed their tune to 'questionable' by Monday and now appear to be somewhat confident about his Monday availability. Nevertheless, it is likely that Pierson will not practice on Thursday.
The Bucs made one minor roster move on Wednesday, releasing S Lemar Marshall from the practice squad. Marshall was added to that unit three weeks ago after Lynch's injury, when it was originally believed that Lynch would be unavailable or at least limited for awhile. Marshall also spent a brief period with the Bucs during the 2000 preseason and started his NFL career in Tampa Bay's 1999 training camp.
NFL teams rarely carry less than the five allowable practice squad members, particularly at this time of the season when nagging game injuries thin the ranks for practice. Thus, it would not be surprising to see Marshall's spot filled very quickly.