Now the fun begins: The feeding frenzy over which team will land the services of the future Hall of Fame quarterback. It's easy to see Manning's appeal. He holds countless NFL records, he's earned league MVP honors an unprecedented four times, he's one of the most brilliant passers the game has ever seen and, well, he's one of the more beloved personalities in the history of football -- a guy even fans in rival towns admit is a great player and great ambassador for the game.
Meanwhile, the NFL is filled with teams desperate to win and desperate to find a quarterback. So the parade of Peyton Manning suitors will dominate pro football headlines for the foreseeable future.
But nobody rains on a parade with a deluge of data quite like the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
And the reality is that Manning is, at best, a stop-gap measure and a short-term solution with few precious years remaining in the NFL. The team that signs him tomorrow may land a future Hall of Famer. But they're also landing an aging player, fresh off a catastrophic injury, who even in the best of circumstances is on the back-nine of his career.
Here are six warning signs every team -- and its fans -- should heed before expecting a miracle on the field in 2012 and beyond.
Warning Sign 1 -- The Age Issue
Father Time eventually gets all of us. And the reality is that Manning turns 36 on March 24. He is, by any measure, an old man in the Not For Long League.
Even the greatest quarterbacks simply do not produce in their late 30s the same way they produce in their late 20s. It's unreasonable to expect 36-year-old Manning to produce near the level of 28-year-old Manning -- let alone do it surrounded by new faces everywhere from the front office to the front line.
Joe Montana is widely cited as the guy who got it done late in his career with a new team. He played his last two seasons (1993, 1994) with the Kansas City Chiefs. Montana, in fact, provides almost the perfect historic precedent for Manning: He was the face of the 49ers and one of the NFL's elite players for more than a decade, much like Manning was with the Colts. Montana missed the entire 1991 season due to injury at age 35 -- the same age as Manning when he missed the entire 2011 season due to injury.
Montana played in just one game for the 49ers at age 36, in the 1992 season, and was 37 when he landed with the Chiefs in 1993 and helped Kansas City reach the AFC title game that season. But those dusty old memories fans have of Ageless Joe playing elite football at the end are not matched by reality.
The injury-riddled Montana appeared in just 25 of 32 regular-season games with the Chiefs, and his production was simply not what it had been as a younger player. He threw 29 TDs against 16 INTs over those two seasons, and even his famous run to the AFC title game in the 1993 season was something less amazing than many remember.
The Chiefs beat the 9-7 Steelers at home in overtime in the wild card round (Dave Krieg actually threw Kansas City's first TD that day). A narrow home win against a borderline .500 team is hardly the stuff of legend. A week later Montana was picked off twice by the Oilers in the divisional round, but managed to outduel Warren Moon, who was also 37, 28-20.
Montana's Chiefs were then manhandled 30-13 by the Bills in the 1993 AFC title game, and the quarterback was knocked from the game in the third quarter after completing just 9 of 23 passes for 125 yards and one interception.
Montana returned for the 1994 season, but threw just 16 TDs in 14 games.
Here's how Montana performed before 36 and in his three seasons at 36 and older.
Sure, the Chiefs landed a future Hall of Fame quarterback. But they also landed a guy battered by age and injury. His passer rating of 85.9 made him not elite, but barely above average. His average per attempt before 36 was nearly an entire yard better than his average per attempt at the end. Montana was less accurate, less effective, less likely to get the ball in the end zone once he reached 36.
He's still an all-time great -- but even the greatest at 36 are not as good as they were at 28.
Warning Sign 2 -- Declining Performances
The careers of almost all quarterbacks follow a general pattern: They struggle when very young, hit their stride in their late 20s and early 30s, and then quickly hit a wall of production.
Manning is clearly on a downslide in terms of production. His career peaked in 2004, with then-records in TD passes (49) and passer rating (121.1).
Manning's performances have consistently declined, almost step by step, year after year since that signature 2004 season. Here's a look at Manning's annual production since peaking in 2004.
Manning put up gaudy volume numbers in 2010, his last on the field. But in reality, his efficiency -- the numbers that win and lose football games -- had fallen off the face of the earth.
His average per attempt in 2010 was 2.3 yards lower than it was in 2004; his TD rate declined by more than half; his passer rating was nearly 30 points lower in 2010 than it was in 2004 (he ranked 10th in the NFL in passer rating in 2010, 19 points behind league-leader Tom Brady).
Manning may have been the best QB ever in 2004. But by 2010, he was little more than an above-average quarterback.
Warning Sign 3 -- The Health Issue
Manning is not only an old quarterback. He's an old quarterback coming off a catastrophic neck injury that forced him to miss an entire season after not missing a single game in his first 13 years.
In fact, that injury is still the elephant in any negotiating room. If Manning were a highly touted senior coming out of college, last year's injury might be enough to drop him well out of the first round.
But Manning is not a highly touted senior coming out of college. He's one of the all-time great QBs. Will teams heed this warning sign? It all depends on how desperate they are.
The Colts certainly missed the warning signs last year. The organization clearly had a strong relationship with the quarterback -- especially if the Jim Irsay-Peyton Manning press conference Wednesday was any indication. The team should have known the nature of his injuries. Instead, it was caught by surprise when Manning couldn't play last year.
At the very least, the team had a very bad Plan B when it became apparent in August that Manning wasn't ready to play. The Colts were reduced to hastily signing 39-year-old warhorse Kerry Collins out of retirement two weeks before the season.
Warning Sign 4 -- The Dome Issue
Several teams that play outdoors are high on the list of likely Manning suitors: the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins, to name three.
All three are desperate for a quarterback, while the Redskins in particular have a history of throwing caution -- and big piles of dollars bill -- to the wind when it comes to high-profile free agents.
But the fact of the matter is that Manning has not produced at the same elite level outdoors as he has indoors, even in the best of times. In fact, he's merely an above-average QB outdoors, not the Hall of Fame quarterback we see week in and week out when he plays in the cozy confines of a dome.
Here are Manning's career numbers (regular-season only) home, away and then away when playing outdoors.
The data is pretty clear: Manning is less accurate outdoors, with a lower average per attempt, lower TD rate, higher INT rate and lower passer rating outdoors. More importantly, he wins just 60 percent of his games outdoors, compared with 73 percent at home in his Indy domes.
Teams like the Browns, Dolphins or Redskins may break the bank to land Manning. But they'll be breaking the bank to land a quarterback who's Another Guy when playing outdoors.
Warning Sign 5 -- A New System
Stability means everything in the NFL -- games are won by stable organizations with stability on the sidelines and stability at quarterback.
Manning has enjoyed more stability than any quarterback of his era. He played for three coaches: Jim Mora (four years), Tony Dungy (seven years) and long-time Dungy assistant and Colts QB coach Jim Caldwell (two years). Perhaps more importantly, Manning played with the same offensive coordinator every single year, Tom Moore, operating the same offensive system.
Manning will play pro football outside that system for the first time during the 2012 season. In most instances, the quarterback is forced to play within the coach's system. But in Manning's case, he has the authority and the cachet to force a coach to accommodate him -- within certain boundaries. After all, it's unrealistic to ask a coach who's been running the same system for years to throw it all out to accommodate a single player -- even for Manning.
But one way or the other, it could be an odd partnership: a coach and a quarterback each set in their ways, forced to find on the fly a style of offense within which both can operate comfortably. It's not an ideal situation for either party and one fraught with the potential for friction -- especially if things don't go right.
Warning Sign 6 -- The Playoff Issue
Teams that believe Manning is the only thing standing between them and the Super Bowl might want to take a step back and take a long, hard look at Manning's postseason history.
Manning is one of the all-time great QBs, but if there's a black mark on his record, it's the consistently underwhelming performances year after year in the postseason.
Manning won 67.8 percent (141-67) of all his starts in the regular season, with a team built around his skills. Same quarterback, same team, same advantages, has gone just 9-10 in the postseason (.473) -- typically losing when the prolific offense of the regular season tanks in the postseason.
The Colts reached the playoffs in 11 of 13 seasons with Manning at the helm, but also failed to win a playoff game in seven of those 11 appearances -- the most one-and-done playoff appearances by any quarterback in history.
Even in Manning's single Super Bowl-winning season of 2006, the quarterback failed to sparkle. In fact, he threw just 3 TDs in four playoff games that year, against 8 INTs -- the worst TD-INT ratio of any Super Bowl-champion QB.
Manning will probably make any team that signs him better. But if we're being very honest, here's what a team will be chasing in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes: an aging player, fresh off a catastrophic injury, whose production has declined in recent years, in a sport in which players hit the wall in their mid-to-late 30s, and who has always struggled outdoors and in the playoffs.
If a team thinks that Manning is the difference between a second-rate season and a Super Bowl, they might want to think again.
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