Warner’s journey from undrafted free agent to grocery store clerk to All-Arena First-Teamer to NFL Europe stud to Super Bowl MVP is as wandering and remarkable a trajectory as it gets in professional football, but the soon-to-be Hall of Famer says if one team had taken a chance on him in 1999, he could have become even more of a legend.
In 1999, Warner, then a member of the St. Louis Rams, was eligible for the expansion draft held for the reincarnated Cleveland Browns franchise. Instead of selecting a journeyman backup with 11 career attempts, the Browns picked then-Buccaneers quarterback Scott Milanovich, who had thrown just three previous passes, and selected Tim Couch with the top pick in the 1999 draft.
The Browns, in their second iteration, have yet to find a true starting quarterback, leaving fans, and Warner, to wonder, What if?
“Had I gone to Cleveland, how would my career be different? I have no idea,” Warner said Thursday on a Pro Football Hall of Fame conference call. “It would have been fun to win a Super Bowl in Cleveland, though. But I think when you’re going through the process, and you get to this point I always felt like wherever I was, I would be successful.
“A lot of people I think when they see my career, they hear or they remember, ‘Sat on the bench for four years in college, got cut by the Packers, worked in a grocery store and then won the Super Bowl.’ That’s kind of the timeline that people see when they hear Kurt Warner. When I look at the timeline, I look at it and say, ‘Played one year in college, was player of the year in my conference, I played three years in arena football, went to the Arena Bowl twice and was voted the best quarterback in the league all three seasons, went to Europe for a year and was the top quarterback statistically the season I played there.’ So I look at it and say every time I played I was successful. Everybody else looks at it and says he didn’t play very much. So there were two different perspectives on it.
“So had I gone to Cleveland, I would have expected nothing else but to have success, somehow, someway, some form. Had I been on the field, I would have expected to play well and have success. … I believe, had I gone there and had a chance to play, I would have helped that franchise go to places they’ve never been before. Whether it’s arrogance or confidence or whatever you want to call it, that was my mentality when I stepped between the lines on a football field that I was going to make my team better and somehow, someway, I was going to find a way to succeed.”
A lot of fortunate happenstance had to occur for Warner to achieve success with the Rams in ’99 and in the NFL beyond. Trent Green was injured in the preseason; Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were at the peak of their powers, as was offensive coordinator Mike Martz; and Buccaneers wideout Bert Emanuel “dropped” the ball in the NFC Championship Game.
Warner was a great player in his own right and deserves his place in the Hall of Fame for his memorable Super Bowl stints with St. Louis and Arizona, but if he had been drafted to the Browns in 1999 with Chris Palmer at the helm and an expansion roster surrounding him, would the quarterback have been able to flash his magic as readily en route to Canton? The jury will forever be out on that one.