One Scout’s Memory of Hall of Famer Kurt Warner
By Dan Shonka
Kurt Warner is the type of athlete that scouts dream of uncovering, even if it took him six years to become an overnight sensation. Number 13 played behind Jay Johnson for three years at Northern Iowa because of the advancement to the playoffs three consecutive years, including a number one ranking in IAA during Johnson’s senior year and Warner’s junior season. When I visited UNI in the fall of 1993, Panther offensive coordinator/quarterback coach and pro liaison Bill Salmon told me to keep an eye on Warner and explained that the right-handed, strong-armed passer could start for most IAA programs but it was tough to replace a smart seasoned quarterback like Johnson who rarely made physical or mental errors. Salmon and Head Coach Terry Allen gave Warner high marks in every phase of the game except experience which was reflected in my report. In my mind, an NFL quarterback prospect must be accurate and make good decisions foremost. Then there are subsets under accuracy like outstanding anticipation. Warner improved every game his senior year making key split-second decisions. In his last game as a college senior Warner gave the Panthers a chance to win twice late in the playoff loss against Boston University. Dedric Ward, a speedy sure-handed receiver and a future third round pick of the NY Jets, dropped a wide open touchdown pass. Then after Warner moved the Panthers down the field again for the potential win, an All-America kicker missed a chip shot field goal ending the college career of the Gateway Conference Player of the Year.
I studied all 12 of his game tapes and saw him play live in three. I did not write a report on Warner until the season was over so I could build a book and profile him for our teams. In one of the three games I attended in person, Kurt played with a sore shoulder and didn’t look as sharp and accurate. As it turned out, it was my last year with National Football Scouting, the NFL’s largest Combine with 16 teams at the time. I reported to all the teams on Warner’s progress and gave him a “make it” grade. Because Warner only started one year, I felt it was important to get him to Indianapolis as one of the throwing quarterbacks. I talked to my boss and National Football Scouting Director, Duke Babb, and told him I had two quarterbacks in my area I’d like to bring to Indy - Kurt Warner from Northern Iowa and Paul Burmeister from Iowa. Duke said he’d get back to me after he talked to Jack Butler the director of Blesto, the Independents (teams not in any Combine), and National Football Scouting’s’ other teams. Babb phoned me a few days later and said Burmeister was no problem, but no other teams had written Warner as a prospect. I pleaded Warner’s case with Babb, reasoning that’s exactly why he should be in Indianapolis so the teams could interview him and see him throw. “Dan, its over,” said Babb.
After the 1994 Draft for which Warner was eligible, I was hired by Philadelphia. The first thing I did was visit with Richie Kotite, the Eagles’ head coach about bringing in Warner as a free agent. The first thing he said was no. I received a phone call from Ron Wolfe, Green Bay’s General Manager, and he recalled how passionate I was about Warner during the past fall National meetings. “I just called to let you know that we’re going to sign Kurt off of your report. Our scouts didn’t write him.” I was happy Warner got his break. I knew the Packers were loaded with Brett Favre, Mark Brunell, and Ty Detmer, but I thought he would have a chance as a practice squad quarterback. I found out from Jack Wirth, Warner’s then agent, that San Diego, Cincinnati, and Tampa Bay (all National Football Scouting teams) showed interest in signing Kurt.
The following year the Eagles hired Ray Rhodes as head coach and Jon Gruden from Green Bay as offensive coordinator. I talked to Gruden about bringing in Warner to Philly. Gruden said no, he thought the game was too big for Kurt after seeing him in camp the previous year. Fast forward after Warner had success in Arena ball and NFL Europe, I asked Gruden if we could bring him in and again he said no. I was starting to feel like Kurt Warner. In the meantime, Warner signed with the St. Louis Rams, another National Football Scouting team. As a college scout, I was assigned to attend and evaluate preseason games to make recommendations to build up the bottom part of our Eagle roster. I was assigned to the Rams-Chargers game on August 28, 1999. I was excited to see Trent Green, another quarterback with Cedar Rapids’ roots like Warner. On that fateful Saturday night I witnessed Charger Pro Bowl safety, Rodney Harrison, slip Marshall Faulk’s block and put the hit heard around the NFL on Green, tearing both left knee ligaments. Ironically, Harrison was a former teammate of Green at San Diego and as a Western Illinois alum played against Warner in college. Late that night offensive coordinator Mike Martz convinced Head Coach Dick Vermeil that they could win with Warner at quarterback, and the rest is history. When Warner takes the stage for his induction speech with his gold jacket on and his wife Brenda unveiling his bust, I’ll know for sure that I got one right. (Warner’s full report
is posted at Ourlads.com.)
Dan Shonka has evaluated and scouted college talent for the NFL for 29 years with National Football Scouting, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, and Kansas City Chiefs. He signed over 25 free agents who made it onto NFL rosters. Shonka is the general manager of Ourlads’ NFL Scouting Services LLC (Ourlads.com) based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, an NFL team draft consultant, a contributor to the USA Today and Athlons’ Sports Publications, a member of the Professional Football Writers’ Association, and is on the East-West Shrine All-Star game selection committee.