Warner leads the charge of veterans on the rebound

By Larry Canale

The 2008 season was supposed to feature breakout years by at least two can’t-miss young guns among NFL quarterbacks: Arizona’s Matt Leinart and Tennessee’s Vince Young. Both were entering their third seasons, both arrived at training camp with the starting job in hand and both were ready to join the NFL’s elite QBs.

 Things don’t always work out according to plan.

The Cardinals may have wanted to get serious about starting the Matt Leinart Era, but 37-year-old Kurt Warner had other ideas. In 2007, Arizona wrote him off as being too immobile. An injury to Leinart in Week 5, however, pressed Warner into action, and he performed well. Even so, he found himself in line behind Leinart when training camp opened in ’08.

Enter experience. And guile. During the exhibition season, Warner wrestled the starting job away from Leinart. And he did it the old-fashioned way: with a cannon arm, dead-on accuracy, great field vision and the courage to stand in the pocket and fire, despite any number of oncoming 300-pounders bearing down on him.

By Week 13, Warner had led the Cardinals to an NFC West division-clinching win over the Rams, the team’s first such title in 33 years.
 In Tennessee, the Titans broke camp with Vince Young as the clear-cut starter. In Week 1, he went down with a knee injury, opening the door for 35-year-old Kerry Collins. The journeyman showed his mettle as a leader by helping the Titans reel off 10-straight wins and clinching an early playoff berth.

Warner and Collins aren’t the only grizzled veterans who are leading their teams into the playoff picture.

• In Carolina, 33-year-old Jake Delhomme, coming off Tommy John surgery, is experiencing a rebirth. He’s a Collins-type QB whose stats aren’t eye-opening, but who has been piling up wins for the Panthers.

• In Minnesota, 37-year-old Gus Frerotte displaced another “can’t-miss” quarterback, Tavaris Jackson, and won nine of his first 12 starts, as the Vikings closed in on their first division title since 2004.

• In Tampa, 38-year-old Jeff Garcia overcame a shaky start, even losing his job for three weeks, before settling into a groove that saw him win six out of seven starts.

• And, of course, there’s the poster boy for veteran QBs, Brett Favre. His role in the New York Jets’ turnaround from a 4-12 also-ran to a threat to win the tough AFC East has been well covered, to put it mildly. At 39, Favre has (slightly) tamed his gunslinger approach in doing what he does best: win. Along the way, he has established a pile of new passing records. In Week 4, for example, he threw six TDs in a game for the first time, and in Week 12, he set the record for most seasons (14) with 20 TD passes.

CALLING ALL COLLETORS
As good as this season’s “tried and true” QBs have been, they don’t necessarily fire up collectors on a national scale. Favre, of course, is the exception. He has long been a collector favorite, and that won’t change.

“Brett Favre is one of the big guys in football collecting, along with John Elway and Dan Marino,” says Eddie Barkley, owner of Sports Treasures, a Knoxville, Tenn., seller of cards and memorabilia. “When Favre retired, his collectibles took a hit, just like Marino’s and Elway’s did. For anyone who collects these players, the excitement leaves when they retire and demand drops. So Favre coming back was a big thing for business.”

Not only have legions of Green Bay Packers fans continued their pursuit of Favre treasures, but untold numbers of New York Jets fans have caught Favre Fever. His jersey is the No. 1 seller at NFLShop.com, for example, and collectors are paying $450 and up for a Favre-signed Jets helmet. 

 While Favre has remained hot, Warner is at least getting warmer, though more on a regional level than national one. Mike Dingwell, owner of Box Seat Collectibles in Phoenix, says he’s having trouble keeping Warner items in stock. “For me, obviously, Warner is hot,” Dingwell said. “In fact, I don’t even have any Warner stuff right now; I’m sold out.”

Warner’s heyday in the hobby was during his amazing three-year period of dominance, 1999-2001, when he led the Rams to a Super Bowl title and notched two MVP awards. In 1999, five years after unsuccessfully trying out for the Packers (Mark Brunell was Favre’s back-up), Warner threw 41 TD passes and led the Rams to their first Super Bowl title. In 2000, he had 21 more TD passes in an injury-shortened season, but he came back in 2001 with 36 TD passes and 4,830 yards. Injuries in the seasons ahead compromised his effectiveness, and he found himself exiled from St. Louis, playing one unforgettable season with the Giants (he threw just six TDs in 10 games in 2004).

In 2005, he signed with the Cardinals, and now, in his fourth year with the team, he looks better than ever.

“I think this is Warner’s best Cardinals season,” says Darren Urban, who covers the team for AZCardinals.com. “Some of that is Warner making sure he is better – that he’s doing a better job of protecting the ball with two hands in the pocket, and taking fewer risks on his throws. Some of that is his supporting cast and coaching. Having continuity on the coaching staff and with offensive coordinator Todd Haley helps. Haley and Warner understand what the other is trying to accomplish. Having both Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin healthy this season for the most part helps, too. Remember, Boldin played most of last season with a fractured hip that limited him.”

Despite Warner’s play, his collectibles reflect a buyer’s market. That may change, but for now, you can find all kinds of gems at below-book prices. A number of Warner-signed mini-helmets, for example, sold last month on eBay at prices between $30 and $75. And consider his 1999 Playoff Contenders SSD Rookie Ticket Autograph card. It was valued at $400 in 2001; last month, one sold for $100 on eBay, and another got away for $75.

On the other hand, a couple of Warner-signed Rams Super Bowl jerseys on eBay show that demand might be strengthening. One sold for $575, and the other was approaching that mark at press time.

As for Collins, he entered the NFL in 1995 and had early success with the Carolina Panthers, leading the team to a 12-4 record and a playoff berth in his second season. But as quickly as he became a hot name among collectors, Collins hit hard times. He was 6-7 as a starter in 1997, and in the middle of the following season, he went into the office of Panthers coach Dom Capers, told him his “heart’s not in it,” and asked to be benched, according to Sports Illustrated. Carolina released him in the middle of the 1998 season, and he signed with the Saints.

After a half season in New Orleans (marred by a DWI charge), Collins was on the move again. He spent five up-and-down years with the Giants, and then he moved on to Oakland for two mostly forgettable seasons (his record as a starter: 7-21). As he entered the twilight of his career, he seemed destined to back up Vince Young for a couple of seasons before fading out. Instead, he coolly led Tennessee into the playoffs.

Now that he’s the toast of the town in Nashville, is demand for Collins memorabilia rising? “Definitely, yes,” says Barkley, whose Knoxville shop is less than 175 miles from the Titans’ home. “That doesn’t mean I have a lot of demand. People want rookies, like Chris Johnson. But as people started to realize how good the Titans are, they’re talking more about Collins. They ask, ‘What Collins cards have you got?’ So I’m trying to dig out any I can find.”

Again, though, the interest is regional rather than national, which is also the case for Garcia, Delhomme and Frerotte memorabilia. Despite their winning ways, you can find any number of this trio’s cards for “minor star” prices or less, meaning $1-$5, and you can find signed mini-helmets for around $50.

“If you really think about it,” says Dingwell, “they get no love in the hobby. Look at the checklists of Topps or Upper Deck or Donruss, and you won’t see these guys on a lot of cards. The demand isn’t there.”

But he adds, “If one of them steps up and wins the Super Bowl, you can bet your butt that the card companies will be manufacturing.”

For now, collectors may not be flocking to most of our “great greybeards,” but there’s no doubt that fans are enjoying it. As Dingwell notes, “My older clientele kind of rants and raves about the older guys coming back in football.” Adds Barkley, “I love the fact that Warner is ripping it up; he’s a classy guy who has really hung in there.”

He’s also proving, as his fellow veterans are, that in the NFL, there’s no substitute for experience. SCM

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