Paying Warner His Due is a Defining Moment

Like many Americans, Friday is payday for Kurt Warner, but most of the labor force in this country won't be getting a check for $6 million, half that after taxes are withheld, like the Rams two time MVP quarterback. Despite the number of zeroes on #13's check, however, Kurt Warner earned this money as much or more than anyone.<br>

For Rams, Paying Warner His Due is a Defining Moment
By Rams Nation's Barry Waller

I hope our readers will note that those on this site who take pride in giving fans the truth rather than just rumors to fret and argue about or call the radio talk shows about, never bought into the maelstrom of rumors about Kurt Warner the past few months. Most of the St. Louis media always seems to have a different take on the Rams and Mike Martz than those in the national media located on both coasts and in Atlanta.

There are many fans who prefer what they get on ESPN as far truer than what the local guys say. Those fans say the St. Louis media is somehow “soft” on the local teams, and won’t get at the inside stuff and find some real “scoops” for them about what goes on at Rams Park. I will use this whole Warner situation that has been getting so much ink and air time all over the U.S. as exhibit one of the case to put far more stock in the media who spends time at Rams Park week after week over high paid “analysts” in a studio 2000 miles away.

You won’t be hearing any retractions from those guys who have spent so much of the fans time this off season talking about the roster bonus due Warner February 28th to keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. They kept saying that the Rams were thinking hard about not paying Warner after an injury plagued and winless 2002 season. There was media talk of trades to Chicago, Baltimore, Kansas City, and every other team that needed a star QB in the worst way.

They even said in some places that it was “likely”, or “very possible”, even though none would go out so far as to say it was a sure deal. However none of those soothsayers came out and said that the Rams would be nuts not to pay Warner and keep the guy who took them to two Super Bowls and won MVP in one of them.

If the national “experts” really had thought about it, that’s exactly what they should have said, and the reason’s go far beyond just being confidant that Warner would return to form in 2003. Instead, many will be saying that Warner is still hurting, that something is wrong with him, that he is “done” at age 32, and they will be the same guys who were the most sure Warner was going to get cut or traded, neither of which is possible after Friday. Again, they will fail to mention that their earlier predictions and “inside” information was bogus.

In my mind, Friday is a defining moment for the Rams front office and ownership, especially to St. Louis fans who don’t remember when the perception of the Rams was that of a cheap outfit who would let stars leave and would not pay the price of winning in the NFL. The St. Louis fans had 27 years of that from Billy Bidwill and the Cardinals, and old time fans would be heartbroken at even the sniff of that type leadership from the Rams people. Some of them remain from the old inept Rams management, like team Presidents John Shaw and Jay Zygmunt, the two men who most made the decision to pay the $11 million Warner will make in 2002.

Since coming to St. Louis, John Shaw and Zygmunt have done everything possible to erase the memories of the 1980s for long time Rams fans, and it would be a giant stab in the heart for them to have stayed with the team even with mixed feelings about the people who ran the team and moved it to St. Louis. Winning and doing the other things to be a class organization, one players want to be a part of has paid off for the Rams when athletes and their agents are cooperative with Zygmunt in managing the Rams salary cap issues year after year.

More than almost any other team, the star players got cap friendly deals quietly done for far less cash than they could have gotten on the open market, none more than Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, the two top team leaders and reasons the Rams have been one of the best teams in football over four years as well as the most exciting Rams team ever. The job is not done yet, and the continuing effort to make the atmosphere at Rams Park too good for a player to seek employment elsewhere over money is ongoing.

Kurt Warner won the MVP award in the season and the Super Bowl in 1999, and the Rams knew they better get their franchise QB tied up right then, rather than give any other team a chance to acquire him in just a year or two, or have to use a cap killing franchise tag eventually that would make for a cap hit of about $7 million, right when they would be trying to hold the team together for a run of success.

It’s no surprise that Warner wanted to get something done too, because even with a $500,000 bonus from the Rams for his miracle 1999 season, Kurt was not yet rich from playing in the NFL. If Warner played for the minimum in 2000, and gut hurt, he could end up with nothing. Even so, the way he and his agent Mark Bartelsten allowed Zygmunt to set up the deal was a huge leap of faith, even for a man who has more of that in himself and his Lord and Savior than any athlete, or any American for that matter.

When it was announced that Warner would be getting a $12 million bonus and a seven year deal worth over $36 million, it appeared that the two sides had both taken a chance on a guy with just one year of superstardom, but when one knows the way these deals are inflated in real guaranteed value, and looks hard at how Warner’s deal was designed, it’s pretty obvious that Kurt was the guy taking the larger risk in 2000.

For Warner, that risk was not an issue. He told the Rams with that contract that if he wasn’t that good over the next three years, they could cut him without paying the second half of the bonus on February 28th, 2003, and with more than $20 million in salary left unpaid. In other words, the WORST the Rams could end up if Warner stunk up the joint after 1999 and stayed till 2002 was out a paltry $7.5 million or so.

Not a bad bet to lay on a guy who did what Kurt did his first season as an NFL starter in 1999, which was break about every record there is for such a new starter, and many for ANY quarterback. Even a mediocre backup signal caller is going to get about $3 million for those three years, even if they don’t play. As it happened, Kurt Warner came through in spades until this unfortunate 2002 bump in the road that has fans worried so much about his future.

Warner’s willingness to sign his sweet deal in 2000 made it possible for the Rams to do most of the things they could do to keep as many good players as possible when they became cap strapped. They never have gotten close to the cap hell some teams have gotten themselves into in recent years, and much of the relief came from Warner and Faulk, their other MVP. How could Shaw and Zygmunt even think about not giving Warner the reward that his deal seemed to guarantee if he continued to be one of the top two or three quarterbacks in the NFL?

My take is that in reality they didn’t, especially after Warner got his shoulder and hand checked out after the season with MRI results showing he is in very good shape physically. Still those rumors and predictions of Warner’s future continued to spew from the national media from people who have no idea of the whole picture for the Rams organization. Sure, one can say the NFL is a hard business, and it certainly is in many ways because of the cap, but the cost of screwing Warner would have been devastating to the Rams image with their loyal fans who have accepted ticket increases and kept supporting the team right to the end even in such a horrifying season as 2002 became.

From 2000 until 2002, Kurt Warner pulled down a total of about $8 million in remuneration, counting workout bonuses and any performance bonuses, plus his playoff checks, with the veteran minimum salary for all three seasons. That’s an average of about $2.7 million a season for arguably the top passer in the league. Add in 1999 and his average salary as a Ram is only $2.1 million.

Not a bad bargain for the Rams when the franchise figure for QBs is over three times that average over that time span. Had the Rams paid Warner year by year from 2000 to last season based on his previous year’s performance, using that $7 million franchise number, he would have been paid $21 million for those three seasons, and the Rams would have been happy to pay it.

That means they saved $13 million at least because Kurt put the onus on himself to prove he was no fluke in 2000. Most fans were so elated over locking him up that they never noticed that the second half of that bonus was not guaranteed. It should have been after what Kurt showed NFL fans in his first three seasons, and for Mike Martz, Shaw and Zygmunt, smart men all, it probably was all along this off-season, no matter what any “insider” might have said. Even paying that $11 million in 2003 still leaves Warner underpaid for his performance over five years.

Look at what other NFL quarterbacks have been getting paid while Warner made most of them look second rate. Peyton Manning earned over $25 million from 2000-2002 counting bonus, and $13.5 million was salary, TEN TIMES Kurt’s annual amount. Drew Beldsoe, decent but inconsistent in one of those three years and replaced by Tom Brady the second before heading to Buffalo for the third year of that run, pulled in $14.6 million in salary alone, and probably over $30 million total.

At least those guys are pretty good, compared to guys like Kordell Stewart, who made $12.2 million in salary on top of a big bonus at the start of his deal that probably pushed his three-year figure to $20 million, and last year he was mostly a backup to Tommy Maddox. Mark Brunell has been hurt a lot of the games that three-year span from 2000-2002, but still ruined the Jags cap with the $8 million average he counted against the cap.

Even guys like Vinny Testaverde, Jake Plummer, and Steve McNair far out earned Kurt over three seasons if the Rams would sever ties with him Friday. How could anyone possibly be down on Warner and his agent for not refusing to lower what he had coming to help the team again. The check he gets Friday is for what he did from 1999 to 2002, and he would have been entitled to it even had his right arm come off last season and ended his career, maybe not legally, but certainly morally.

What player or agent would help Zygmunt out again when he got in a cap bind if the Rams opted out of the deal and gave Warner the shaft in the process. I guarantee Mark Bartelstein would never do it again, and players coming up for new deals like Torry Holt and Grant Wistrom would certainly have a different view of the organization and their head coach.

The fact is that as much as a redone Warner deal would have helped the Rams, they didn’t need it all that badly, even with Orlando Pace carrying nearly a $7 million cap tag. They were still under the cap anyway with Warner’s deal unchanged, and they get an additional $11 million cap relief when Aeneas Williams and Dexter McCleon are cut Friday. Williams will certainly be re-signed if and when he makes up his mind to continue his Hall of Fame career, but his cap hit will be half of what it was before when he returns on a new deal.

Warner and Bartelstein did move some numbers around to help the cap a bit without lowering the value of Kurt’s deal, and the Rams could also guarantee Warner’s $5 million salary in 2003 to save a few million more if they need it, though that would raise the cap hit for each of the remaining four years of the deal a million bucks per season as most of that $5 million becomes pro rated bonus when guaranteed.

In other words, paying Warner this 2003 money was not a make or break decision for the Rams future and short term success, so I don’t see any way that it would not have been paid to a man who is the epitome of character on and off the field, who makes it very easy to be a fan who loves the players who toil for his team.

Knowing what some teams go through with players who lack what Kurt Warner has so much of as a person, stars who tear teams apart with their selfishness and stupidity and off-field shenanigans, how much is Kurt Warner worth just for the type person and representative of the Rams and the City of St. Louis he is. The first check Kurt Warner wrote after getting his first big check in 2000 was one to his church, for over 10% of that multi-million dollar largesse. You can bet Kurt and Brenda Warner’s minister will be extremely happy with the collection plate this Sunday as well.

That adherence to their incredibly strong religious beliefs is just a part of the giving Kurt and Brenda do through their foundation, run by ex-Rams director of player programs Marcy Moran. They have raised huge amounts of money for many causes, and have collected tens of thousands of winter coats, and loads of monetary donations for the poor the last two years. There is not one player in the NFL who can say they give more back to the fans and the community than Kurt Warner.

Peter King, one of the national writers who really do their homework before presenting strong opinions, and really understand all the nuances of the NFL, has said that Kurt Warner is the finest and most genuine pro athlete he has ever encountered, and people like Dick Vermeil and Mike Martz are of that exact same opinion. Long time local columnists like Bernie Miklasz of the Post Dispatch, who has covered several NFL teams in his long and glorious career, as well as all other professional sports, has echoed the thoughts of those others.

In fact, there are few people who would say one bad word about Kurt Warner as a man anyone should admire for his humanity and kind nature. Anyone who does, after what we in St, Louis have witnessed for Kurt’s four years in the limelight nationwide, is just as clueless as those who have been saying the Rams could or should cut Warner for two months, something that would have certainly destroyed much of what the Rams organization has worked so long and hard to build.

Now I guess we will have to spend the nest two months hearing about the Orlando Pace situation, and all the trade rumors that is going to draw from those hungry for a story when there is none.
I will say the same thing I did about this Warner thing. Just don’t listen, because chances are the guys you are believing have only as much basis to form their opinions as any fan, and should not be taken very seriously at all. If something really goes on, I guarantee our Howard Balzer will know about it more than those others, and when it hits this site, you can count on it being truthful and factual information.

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