Class act

The nature of the position he plays requires as much ego as ability, because quarterbacks understand how abundant the responsibility is that rests on their shoulders. That's what's made Kurt Warner's reaction to his month-old demotion even more incredible to behold.

"When I signed my contract with the Giants it didn't say you only get to be happy and encouraged if you're starting," Warner said. "It said you will play for the New York Giants and whatever that means, whatever role that entails, I'm prepared to play."

Warner, a former two-time NFL MVP with the Rams, invested a lot of faith when he signed with the Giants. He hoped New York would be the place to rediscover the touch that injuries deprived him of during his final two seasons in St. Louis.

Warner anticipated starting for the Giants would provide the springboard for the remainder of his career, either with the Giants or elsewhere. But it hasn't turned out exactly has he had hoped. And all he can do now is wait to see what the ramifications are for the future.

"It's always difficult not to be able to play and compete, because that's what I love to do," Warner said. "That part never gets easier. The one thing I know more than anything is that I can play. I know I can lead and win games at this level. I think that's what makes this all the more frustrating."

After winning the starting job in a spirited training camp competition with Eli Manning, Warner watched the Giants hand his job to Manning in the midst of what looked like a playoff run. The Giants were 5-4 after their loss to the Cardinals Nov. 14, and although somewhat sloppy with the ball, Warner was directing the patient, ball-control offense Tom Coughlin demands with commendable efficiency. He completed 168 of 268 passes (62.7 percent) for 1,927 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. His 85.5 ranking still ranked sixth in the league prior to Saturday's game against the Steelers.

But for whatever reason it wasn't good enough. And for the same reason, his work in the final six minutes against the Ravens Dec. 12 wasn't good enough either. After Coughlin finally had enough of watching Manning pitch the first 0.0 game for the Giants since Tommy Maddox in 1995, he called for Warner.

Warner responded by completing 6 of 9 tosses for 127 yards, including strikes of 41 to Amani Toomer and 22 and 38 to Jeremy Shockey.

"I play this game because I love to compete and when you're not out there it's not as much fun," Warner said. "So it felt good to be back in. And I felt like I was able to see things. I rushed a couple of throws, but for the most part I felt comfortable and good."

Coughlin was unmoved, announcing immediately after the 37-14 defeat that Manning would start against the Steelers.

"It was the right decision," Warner said. "It needed to be done. I agree with it 100 percent."

Imagine that?

All of Coughlin's decisions about his quarterbacks are influenced by the need to get Manning, the future icon, substantive playing time and experience, even though it meant exposing him to the immediate pressure of five of the NFL's top defenses, the Falcons, Eagles, Redskins, Ravens and Steelers.

In terms of the bottom line for 2004, the move has backfired. Prior to the Steelers game, they were in the midst of a six-game losing streak paralleling in many macabre ways the eight-game spiral that cost Jim Fassel his job.

But Warner is not complaining and Coughlin is both grateful and impressed.

"I think his attitude is very rare," Coughlin said. "I think it's a great statement about the quality of the man. He has been superb in the locker room, in the meeting room. I have talked to him many times in many different places and his response has always been the same. He's always, in some way, supportive of what is happening here. So, I continually take my hat off to the guy."

The positive attitude is not a show. This is who Warner is, a reflection of the man he's become and the one who intends to make his mark on people long after his career is over.

"There is still a big picture here," Warner said. "What I want to do with my life is to portray myself as a representative of Jesus, and whether I'm playing or not playing is irrelevant. That's how I want live my life no matter the circumstances. I'm not going to say it's easy. Often you have to fight the urge to hope the guy who has your job doesn't play too well. We're all human. But that's the challenge for me. I can't let all the garbage get in the way. It's the attitude I take, the image I try to project."

Warner understands how unusual his position is. Although he said he's never witnessed it, Warner has heard of instances when veteran quarterbacks have reacted adversely to being benched and became distractions. His model was Trent Green, whose preseason knee injury in 1999 paved the path for Warner's stardom.

"He handled the situation with as much class as I could have imagined," Warner said. "Now that I've had to go through the same thing in the last two years, I've tried to conduct myself with the same integrity as he did. This is not me against Eli, like it wasn't me against Marc Bulger [in St. Louis]. I understand a lot of people take that approach, feel like they can't share any insight. Not me. I'm here to be a part of the organization. For the first nine games, that meant being on the field. Now it's to encourage Eli in every way I can."

What Warner has told Manning is to keep pushing forward, not to dwell on the multiple negatives that have characterized his starts.

"I learned a lot from Kurt watching him go through all his reads and progressions in games and practices," Manning said.

Said Warner: "We've all been in situations where things aren't going in your favor. Sometimes things just don't work out, whether it's because of our play, the team's play or a collective failure. But you also know how quickly things can change. Roles change, teams change, momentum changes. Those good things will all eventually come to him. It's just not moving as fast as any of us would like."

Based on his experience with Green in St. Louis, Warner has also developed a feel for Manning which tells him when it's appropriate to approach him with information or advice.

"I was very vocal back then," Warner said. "Trent had known the offense and it was my first year. He probably got sick of me asking questions. But I wanted to learn and Trent knew the offense very well. And I didn't care what anyone thought.

"But I'm not offended by anything. If someone wants to listen to me now, that's great. If someone could care less, that's great, too. I'm a guy who throws out information when I think it's appropriate. If you want to snag it, fine. If you'd rather let it fly by, OK. I'm going to try and share as much information and wisdom as I can. He's not someone who will search you out with questions. He's more introverted and quiet. But he's a student who wants to learn."

What's certain is that Warner's teammates appreciate his tact during this turbulent time.

"He's a special person," Toomer said. "He's done a lot of good things for this team. The way he's handled himself is very professional. He's not trying to cause any waves in the newspapers. He's not battling through the court of public opinion. He could if he wanted, but he sees the bigger picture that many others don't."

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