By Matt Swartz
The debate about how much the Cardinals would improve via the hypothetical signing of Peyton Manning will take place in every office (probably including Rod Graves' corner suite) from now until the day Manning's future team is decided. That NFL-altering moment should come shortly after the beginning of the free-agency period on March 13, which means we've got roughly a month to hypothesize about how much the Cards would benefit from the services of an eventual Hall of Fame quarterback nearing the end of his career (yes, they've been down this road before).
For the purposes of this exercise, we're ignoring the obvious physical uncertainty surrounding Manning and his rehabilitation from neck surgery. There was some controversy Wednesday surrounding a radio appearance by Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, who has watched Manning work out and proclaimed the following:
"The guys arm is a noodle -- he cant throw like an NFL quarterback. And by March 8, theres no way of knowing if hes going to be ready or not."
That's a little concerning, yes? But this isn't about whether the Cardinals should or will go after Manning; that's a far more complicated question and depends on some unknowable things about Manning's health as well as yourtheir opinion of Kevin Kolb. This is simply about how much Manning could improve the Cardinals' offense.
Here are some stats: 4,605 yards, 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Clearly, those numbers do not belong to Kolb. Those are Manning's hypothetical 2011 stats with the Cardinals, according to WhatIfSports.com, which plucked a hypothetically healthy Manning off the Colts' roster and added him to various teams in an offseason time-killing project.
For comparison, Kolb had 1,955 yards (in eight-plus games, which projects to about 3,900 yards for a full season) along with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. Manning's numbers would obviously represent a significant upgrade; they'd put him about No. 6 in the NFL in pass efficiency, one spot behind Aaron Rodgers. To say the Cardinals would be a better team with Aaron Rodgers-esque production at quarterback would be a massive understatement and not at all a surprise.
How much better? According to WhatIfSports, with Manning in the lineup, the Cardinals would have averaged 26.6 points per game (up a full touchdown from their actual average of 19.5 with Kolb and John Skelton running the offense), and that in turn would have produced a win-category improvement of three games. That doesn't seem like extreme improvement, but that means Peyton Manning's 2011 Cardinals would have finished (based on this statistical estimation) 11-5. For the record, that would have meant going into the playoffs as no worse than the No. 4 seed rather than sitting at home at 8-8.
It should be noted that the projection was for the 2011 season rather than the 2012 one -- which is where the Cards are focusing their attention now -- and assumed Manning continued at his 2010 production level with no injuries or adjustments to a new system or anything else. That's obviously not a realistic scenario given where things stand right now with his rehab, his age (nearing 36) and the difficulty of learning a new NFL offense, especially after having spent his entire career with the same team.
But it does provide some reference for what an average-ish year from Manning wouldcould do for the Cardinals, which is exactly what most of us have been wondering and discussing.
One more interesting tidbit from the WhatIfSports simulation: Vegas oddsmakers (no specific sports book is cited, but the odds appear to line up with those at Bodog) have installed the Cardinals as 21 favorites for Manning's services. The next-best bets are the Redskins at 52, the Dolphins at 31 and the Jets at 72. Take that for what it's worth.