Kurt Warner and Boomer Esiason have been there, done that.
Warner played in the Super Bowl three times, twice with the St. Louis Rams, including a victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV to cap the 1999 season.
Eleven years earlier, Esiason started for the Cincinnati Bengals in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII.
So, Warner and Esiason know what Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow are experiencing as they prepare to play in the NFL’s marquee game for the first time.
Burrow, 25, was the top pick in the 2020 draft. Stafford, 34, was the top pick in 2009 — by the Detroit Lions.
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“You got the young, gunslinging, next-generation [quarterback] against the guy who’s been in the league for 13 years,” Esiason, a CBS Sports analyst, said in a phone interview.
Stafford and Burrow weathered the two-week buildup to the Super Bowl with a poise similar to what they showed during their teams’ heart-thumping playoff runs. Now they will play in the biggest game of their careers.
Warner was in his second NFL season when he led the Rams to the Super Bowl for the first time.
“I just remember that I really wasn’t prepared for what was the Super Bowl,” Warner, an analyst for the NFL Network, said in a phone interview.
During the week leading up the game in Atlanta, Warner fulfilled innumerable media commitments and traveled throughout the city collecting awards. He used the kitchen to enter and exit the team hotel because fans and other well-wishers constantly stopped players to chat. Warner’s career predated social media, but the coverage on radio and television was omnipresent.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “I remember when I finally got to the game, I was almost exhausted. Like, ‘Let’s just get the game over with.’
“And so, I really learned after that, you really have to embrace all that stuff that comes with it, and you’ve got to prepare yourself ahead of time that this is what it’s going to be.”
“You really have to embrace all that stuff that comes with it, and you’ve got to prepare yourself ahead of time that this is what it’s going to be.”
Kurt Warner, on playing in the Super Bowl
Esiason was in his fifth season when he helped the Bengals reach the Super Bowl. He “enjoyed every minute” of the buildup, he said. He was a guest VJ on MTV and enjoyed feedback from fans when he ventured out.
“There’s so much positivity,” he said, “and I basked in all of that — I loved that part of it.”
The game itself is another challenge.
Trying to convince yourself that it’s just another game is not a great strategy, the former quarterbacks said.
“You understand the moment when you get to that moment,” Warner said. “You understand how big it is when you run out of the tunnel and the flashbulbs go off. So, there’s still the spectacle of it until you start playing the game.”
Esiason said that Bengals coach Sam Wyche engaged him in conversation about thermal underwear before he warmed up.
“I’m like, you’re asking me about thermals before the game? Are you serious?” Esiason said. “He was just trying to take the edge off, that’s all. He was trying to make it like it was a regular game, like it was going to be like a preseason game. … And we damn near pulled it off.”
Once the ball is kicked off and the quarterbacks take their first snaps, muscle memory takes over. The game will play out like most, with ebbs and flows in momentum, Warner said. The key is not trying to do too much.
“For the majority of the game, it’s just a game,” Warner said. “I’m just playing ball again. I’m just doing what I’m doing until about the last two minutes.
“And then once you get to the last two minutes again, you go, ‘OK, this is the Super Bowl. This has higher stakes. This means more, historically, than any other game,’ and you start to understand that.”
In their teams’ playoff runs, Burrow and Stafford both showed cool under pressure. In the AFC championship game, the Bengals trailed the Kansas City Chiefs 21-3 before rallying.
Burrow plays like “a young Tom Brady,” Esiason said.
“They start slow for whatever reason,” Esiason said of the Bengals, “but once they get it going and the game opens up, that’s when you really, truly see the great Joe Burrow.
“That’s when you see the great throws, the tight-window throws.”
In an NFC divisional-round playoff game, the Rams blew a 27-3 lead against the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers before Stafford engineered a game-winning drive in the final 42 seconds.
“They’re in the Super Bowl because of the way that he’s played,” Warner said of the Rams and their quarterback, “and the way that he’s played in the playoffs. It’s awesome for a guy that had a lot of these questions asked about him, and had been at a place that has never really won, to now be in this moment and be the reason that they’re playing on this stage.”
Burrow and Stafford have admired each other’s talents from afar. While growing up in Ohio, Burrow said he watched Stafford, especially during the Lions’ annual Thanksgiving Day games.
“I always thought he didn’t always get the credit that he deserved for what he was doing,” Burrow said. “He’s been one of the best players in the league his entire career.
“And just because they didn’t have the team success in the playoffs, I think, kind of overshadowed what he was doing as a player.”
Stafford has been a fan of Burrow’s since watching him lead Louisiana State to a national championship in the 2019 season.
“Love the way he played, love the way he competed there,” Stafford said, “and that’s just done nothing but carry over to this league.
“And he’s in this game because he’s willed that team to a bunch of wins, and that’s an impressive thing for a guy of his age.”
Now the two quarterbacks will duel on the biggest stage in American sports.
“You have to not allow that to make you become anybody different as a quarterback, and not make you press in this moment, trying to do more to help your team win,” Warner said. “And I think the quarterback for the team that weathers those storms the best will be the team that has a great chance to win.
“And if they both do that, it will probably be a great football game and come down to maybe who has the ball last.”