There were plenty of times during the New York Giants' training camp when it looked as if Kurt Warner's next chance never would come. His passes wobbled in a fashion most unbecoming for a quarterback who was a two-time NFL most valuable player and a two-time Super Bowl starter.
As Warner struggled, the future of the Giants, Eli Manning, was zipping his throws.
But then Manning looked like just another rookie quarterback struggling to figure out the pro game Friday against the New York Jets, and Coach Tom Coughlin suddenly had the answer to the big question surrounding the Giants. Kurt Warner will be the starting quarterback for the Sept. 12 regular season opener at Philadelphia.
Warner will get what he wanted when he signed with the Giants in June on the heels of being released by the St. Louis Rams -- the opportunity to show that he still can be the quarterback who had one of the most magical three-year runs in NFL history from 1999 to 2001.
"I think there are people out there who say, 'He's done. He's over. He can't play any more,' " Warner said recently in camp, before the Giants relocated to their regular season training facility in East Rutherford, N.J. "There are a lot of people rooting for me. But there are also a lot of people saying, 'He's going to have to prove it to me before I believe it.' "
Either way, the Giants' starting quarterback was going to provide the NFL with one of its leading story lines. Now, instead of finding out whether Manning can follow the lead of his father, Archie, and his older brother, Peyton, and immediately become the special quarterback the Giants think he is, observers will find out whether Warner, at 33, can come close to duplicating his exploits for the Rams after two seasons of injuries and disappointing play. Even his new teammates are curious.
"He's throwing the ball well," Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said. "I don't see any residual effects. When you win the Super Bowl and the MVP of the league, you have something to hang your hat on. He's confident."
The fall for Warner in St. Louis was as abrupt as his rise. He had gone from grocery-store bagger and Arena League curiosity to megastar, throwing for 12,612 yards and 98 touchdowns in three glorious seasons. And just as suddenly, he became Marc Bulger's backup and a has-been. He was plagued by hand injuries and suffered a concussion during a six-sack, six-fumble performance against the Giants in last season's opener. He gave way to Bulger, who led the Rams to the playoffs, and didn't play again until the regular season finale. However, Warner said he is fully healthy and has no doubts he still can play, even though the Rams lost all seven of the games he started the past two seasons and he threw 12 interceptions and only four touchdown passes.
"I scrutinize the way I play and watch film and go over it time and time again to make sure I'm not being biased in my favor," he said. "And there were just a lot of things that transpired in the last few years in the games that I played that were just kind of happenings. Teams win. Teams lose. That became more of the situation there than it was, 'Everybody's playing great but Kurt.' It was a matter of a team not coming together and playing at a level that we expected to play at, and it caused us to lose some games. My confidence was never shaken."
He says the right things about the Giants, talking about how the talent on his new offense -- with tight end Jeremy Shockey, wide receivers Toomer and Ike Hilliard, and running backs Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne -- reminds him of the talent on his offense in St. Louis. In truth, though, his skills will be severely tested behind a leaky offensive line on a team that lost its final eight games last season and got coach Jim Fassel fired. Even Warner acknowledges that Manning will play when he's ready and his stay in New York could last only one season.
"It's been a very good experience, the competitive nature of this position," Coughlin said during Sunday's news conference announcing his choice of Warner as the starter. "I wish we could say that about all positions on this team. We would certainly be a better football team for that. The advancement of Eli has been largely due to the competitive nature of this position. . . . I feel good about the two quarterbacks."
It felt different, Warner said, to go through a training camp in a competitive situation, knowing every practice-field throw was important and then going back to the dorm room to cram with the playbook. His mind has always been as important as his arm and he says he realizes it will take time for him to feel as comfortable with his new offensive system as he did with Rams Coach Mike Martz's revved-up scheme. New York is not the place to plead for patience, but Warner isn't complaining. He has his chance.
"I've often thought about playing Arena Football again, the way you just love the game and the pressure was so minute compared to what it is at this level," he said. "It would be nice to just slip into a uniform and go back and throw eight touchdown passes a game and kind of ride off into the sunset. But the greatest league in the world, the greatest position, the greatest job I could ever imagine -- it only lasts a short period of time when I wish that, and then I just sort of thank God for where I'm at and what I've been blessed with up to this point."