Quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme, former teammates in NFL Europe, are getting ready to compete against one another for the first time as fellow starters.
Warner, the NFL's third-leading passer, leads the Arizona Cardinals (4-2) into Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium against Delhomme and the Carolina Panthers (5-2).
A decade ago, they were little-known undrafted players trying to break through with the Amsterdam Admirals.
Warner was the starter and Delhomme the backup.
Delhomme recalls wondering about his future since he couldn't beat out a quarterback whose only previous pro experience was with the Arena League's Iowa Barnstormers.
“I'd call back to my girlfriend – she's my wife now – and my parents and they'd say, ‘What about the other guy?'” said Delhomme. “I'd say, ‘He's not bad. He's got a quick release and he's very accurate with the football.'”
Less than two years later, Warner was the NFL most valuable player and hero of the St. Louis Rams' 1999 Super Bowl championship team.
Delhomme was a barely-used backup in New Orleans before joining the Panthers in 2003 and leading them to a Super Bowl appearance.
Delhomme has gone on to become a fixture in Carolina as the team's clear leader.
Warner's career soared for three seasons in St. Louis (two MVP awards and two Super Bowl appearances), but a hand injury led to his release and eventual signing with the New York Giants in 2004.
He moved to Arizona in '05, but didn't approach the level of his former play with the Rams until last season, when he passed for 3,417 yards, 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
He's been even better this season. He's completing a career high 70 percent of his passes and ranks third in the NFL in passing yards (1,708). His 102.8 passer rating is his best since his breakout year in '99.
Finally, Warner is proving wrong the skeptics who didn't think he'd ever excel again.
“I don't feel like I've lost anything physically from those days back in St. Louis,” he said. “I really just feel like I'm back in a situation where I can succeed.”
Warner is surrounded by talented skill players. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are two of the best receivers in football, though Boldin has missed the past two games because of a concussion and sinus fracture suffered when he took a jarring hit in the end zone against the New York Jets on Sept.28.
Running backs Edgerrin James and rookie Tim Hightower lead the running game.
As good as the Cardinals are, Warner knows his supporting cast doesn't match the dynamic group of players who surrounded him in St. Louis, including Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.
“I'm not sure anybody in the league has ever had that,” he said.
Warner is contemplating whether to continue playing after this season. He said he was jolted by watching Boldin's injury, which at first appeared to be career- or life-threatening.
“It was horrible,” he said. “We all understand that's part of (the game) and that there's always that risk … but to see something like that up close and personal … it was hard on me.
“You think about your own career and you think about your family. You think about wanting to be the father and husband that you've been called to be and wanting to do that when you're done playing football. A lot of things go through your mind – a lot of emotions.”
Warner said he'll weigh his options after this season.
“One of the things I keep telling people is I have no contract after this year,” he said.
“I'm going to make sure I'm doing it for the right reasons.”
Warner and Delhomme have their teams in position to make the playoffs. Arizona is leading the NFC West and Carolina is tied with Tampa Bay atop the NFC South.
Delhomme has become known among Panthers fans for his fiery gunslinger mentality. He said Warner influenced his style of play.
“I learned from Kurt … not to be afraid to throw a pass,” said Delhomme.
“He didn't care what the stat sheet looked like after the game – just get it done.
“I've seen Kurt throw an interception, come right back on the next play and throw the same one for a touchdown. That's something I tried to take with me. He wasn't gun shy.”
And now, it's reunion time.
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